The folly of art for architecture’s sakeNineteen years ago, when Shin Dal-ho first started out as a full-time artist after earning a master’s degree in sculpture at Hongik University, a school know for its art programs, he considered himself a struggling artist. “I was always either in debt, or earning money trying to pay off my debt. Over the years, I gradually earned a reputation, but still I was barely able to make ends meet,” said the 47-year-old artist, who works out of his own studio in Gimpo, Gyeonggi province.
He said that for half his career, he had no income. It was in 1995 that he was first involved with what was called the Art Decoration for Architecture Program, through which a local construction company contacted him to create a sculpture to place in front of a building.
Although Mr. Shin’s finances seemed to be stabilizing, he could soon wind up no more secure than he was 19 years ago. The system of commissioning art work for urban buildings is under fire and a bill to introduce a new system will soon be taken up by the National Assembly. If it passes, sculptors and other artists like him could suddenly see their commissions vanish.
Mr. Shin’s works, made from solid stone, stainless steel and bronze, can be found around non-descript buildings and apartment complexes across Seoul. Although his projects vary in scale, building owners spend anywhere from 13 million won ($13,000) to 1 billion won on art. After the material costs and other expenses, the artist said, he receives about 40 percent, provided no brokers were involved. Although he is currently the vice president of the Hongik Sculpture Society, an organization of sculptors who graduated from Hongik University, and has won many awards, including the Joongang Fine Arts Competition in 1987 and 1988 and the Seoul Modern Sculpture Competition in 1988, he has never considered himself well off.
Apart from teaching part-time at universities, his only reliable source of income to support himself as well as his wife and two young children has been the Art Decoration for Architecture Program. “It accounts for up to 95 percent of my annual earnings. Through the program I get commissioned roughly once a year on average. Last year I was fortunate enough to have been commissioned for three projects,” Mr. Shin said.
Over the years, the program has highlighted the artistic aspects of the city in works such as “Flowering Structure” (1997) by Frank Stella at the Posco building in southern Seoul, “Hammering Man” (2002) by Jonathan Borofsky in front of the Hungkuk Life Insurance building in Gwanghwamun, and the Light Emitting Diode (LED) media board titled “Como” (2004) at the SK T Tower in downtown Seoul, featuring various works by up-and-coming digital artists. Though few in number, these works of art have become landmarks.
Surrounding these masterpieces, however, are uncharacteristic globs of works scattered around the city made by virtually unknown artists, like Mr. Shin. Roundish stone sculptures all with the same “family” theme by the Korean artist Min Bok-jin, some complain, are “all over downtown Seoul.” The overrepresentation of works like Min’s are one reason the general public mistakenly considers sculpture to be the only form of public art. Painters and photographers, for example, don’t benefit as much as sculptors from the program. For years, most critics, especially those engaged in urban architecture, have complained that nameless sculptural works in the cityscape do more bad than good.
Artworks whose quality ranges from great to poor are the result of the Art Decoration for Architecture Program, which was established in 1972. The program was created to enforce a legal mandate that owners of buildings with dimensions larger than 10,000 square meters must commission a work of art within the premises, spending a minimum of 0.7 percent of the building’s construction fee. Having grossed 72.3 billion won in 2004, the program has been a major source of income for artists, as well as for galleries, who receive about 10 to 30 percent in commission.
The Korean program was modeled after France’s Per Cent for Art Scheme, which started in 1951. The purpose of the program was to help out struggling artists economically and to enhance the urban atmosphere by displaying art works in or around office buildings.
As the years went by, the Art Decoration Program deteriorated, mainly because the majority of building owners lost interest in art. As a result, carelessly-made art works have polluted urban spaces. To most building owners, these mandatory pieces of “art” were nothing more than a troublesome burden. A lot of works, in fact, are so poorly done that they disrupt the environment instead of enhance it. “With building owners not interested in art, under the current law, it is highly likely that owners will choose an artwork very carelessly and reluctantly and without considering the urban atmosphere,” said Park Sam-cheol, who specializes in the public art sector for the Korea Association for Visual Art.
The biggest problem with the program has been the flaws in the way money has been distributed. The program was often used as a way to exchange bribes between parties involved, or sometimes even to set up a slush fund. In June 2000, the prosecutors of Suwon city unearthed the laundering of 1.5 billion won between building owners, artists, gallery owners, governmental officials and members of the reviewing board for the art commissions.
Pricing a piece of art by an unknown artist can be a murky business, especially when cash is right at hand. This situation has created an on-going controversy in the Korean art scene.
The Korean government is acting this year to change this cycle of corruption. A reform bill is currently under review at the Culture and Tourism Committee of the National Assembly. The current Art Decoration for Architecture Program, part of the Promotion of the Arts Act, will be on its way out if the bill is passed.
The new law, if it passes, would grant apathetic building owners two options: They can either contribute the same amount of money that should have gone to an art work to the Public Art Fund, or commission an art work that must first gain approval from the newly-established Public Arts Promotion Committee, which handles all public art.
Mr. Park of the Korea Association for Visual Art is delighted, saying that the Public Arts Promotion Committee would nurture true public works if the new law is realized. “Although this legislation is long overdue, I believe that it will overcome the flaws in the current system and invigorate Korea’s public art,” he said, adding that the founding mission of his own association was to vitalize the public art system.
Not only artists are welcoming the bill. Kim Kwang-hyun, the professor of the Department of Architecture at Seoul National University, said architects had always thought that planting a sculpture in front of a building was absurd. “The money could have been spent much more usefully. For instance, it can be invested in a park devoted to public art. The public interest should be the highest priority,” Mr. Kim said.
Mr. Kim pointed out that there have been cases in which the architectural space was distorted by a sculpture that was forced on the building. “This is partly because the current law is enforcing something that the building owner is not interested in, so there is hardly any communication or coordination between the architect and the artist,” he said.
Lee Yeong-gil, the director general of the Korean Fine Arts Association (the association’s membership includes 20,000 active artists), acknowledged the problems of the current system, but said he does not believe that the bill would solve the problem. “We think that the public arts committee, too, will be eventually transformed into an undisputed power group that will turn into a swamp of corruption,” he said. “Because the new public arts committee will plan, execute and review all the public art projects, artists will probably have to ‘stand in line’ in front of the committee members to get commissioned for a project, especially with no organizations to restrain their activities,” he added.
Last year, the Galleries Association Korea, with 100 galleries in Korea, and 15 other arts-related civic organizations, including the Fine Arts Association formed the Korean Public Arts Council, whose mission is to stop the bill from passing the National Assembly. “We will go all the way ―up to the Constitutional Court if the new law passes,” Mr. Lee said.
Yeom Gi-seol, the owner of Yewon Gallery, is particularly concerned about the process of how work would be reviewed by the Public Arts Promotion Committee, because the bill does not require that the reviewing process for works submitted for use on commercial property be disclosed. “Because of this, it is highly likely that the Public Arts Committee will disapprove submitted art works in order to induce building owners to contribute cash to the Public Art Fund, which they would have full control over,” Mr. Yeom said.
The hearings on the bill will begin at the National Assembly this spring. With lawmakers and artists split down the middle on the bill, many are hoping for the current law to change. How it should change is the question.
Since last August, Mr. Shin, the sculptor, has not been commissioned for any projects. He spends his time watching his studio gather dust. Set beside a barren field in the small village in Gyeonggi province, his outdoor studio is a humble 200 square meters, with an even smaller indoor study where he does his research and makes models for his art projects.
Once the law passes, things could get harder for artists like Mr. Shin, who is concerned about his financial future. “This bill in review ultimately prevents building owners from starting a collection. Economically speaking, it’s like the government is taking away our market,” he said, clutching a cigarette as he looked over the empty landscape.
by Ines Cho, Kim Kyoung-mo