For starving artists, a glimmer of hope

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For starving artists, a glimmer of hope

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Lim So-yeon, who graduated from Yonsei University earlier this year, frequently imagines she is conducting an orchestra. In her dreams her fingers gently stroke the air while musicians perform harmonious music under her direction. Behind her an audience watches with amazement. However Lim, who majored in church music, currently spends her days conducting numbers from one Excel file to another, as the secretary of a major fashion firm.
“Majoring in conducting, I was at a crossroads as to whether I should go abroad for further study or find a job here,” she said. “I decided to stay in this country, since even studying abroad would not guarantee my success in Korea.”
Lim believes the music industry in Korea is too small and that unless a musician is a prodigy promoted by a high-profile artist it is extremely difficult to pursue a career as a professional musician. “Friends go abroad just to ease their feelings of anxiety or depression,” Lim said.
According to the Yonsei Career Center, out of 16 graduates from their church music program, only two found jobs related to their major. One works with a church choir and the other joined a recording company. The rest either signed up for graduate school, went abroad or began working in other fields.
The sad truth is that many young artists give up on majors that absorbed four years of their life at college. Many have to seek alternative careers. Many say their plight is not surprising, since living as an artist in Korea has never been easy.
A former ballerina, who is now trying to get her doctoral degree in stage performance, said that, to become a successful artist, knowing the right people is just as important as one’s talent or skill. “That’s common knowledge among performers,” she said.
A young photographer in his mid 30s, who until last week ran a chicken and beer restaurant to make a living and accumulate money for his tuition at the Chung-Ang graduate school of photography, said the world of professional photography is very much the same.
“Living as an artist in this country is not easy,” he said. “It is hard to be a full-time artist unless one is financially secure.”
The young photographer said many Korea artists now travel to Europe, particularly to Germany, to pursue their career. “If you don’t know the right people in this country they won’t accept you,” he said. “Only a few galleries promote young, unknown artists because it is more profitable to display famous foreign artists.”
Some aspirant professionals are pursuing other routes in search of their dream, such as taking on commercial gigs, shooting photographs for advertisements in magazines or newspapers. “When taking in commercial work it becomes harder to work on one’s own projects,” said the photographer.
It is even difficult for a photography student to graduate, since one of the requirements for matriculation is to hold a personal exhibition.
“It costs 10 million won [$11,000] to hold a personal exhibition at a gallery,” said the young photographer. “Since many students find that too expensive, they shy away and, as a result, find it very difficult to make a name for themselves.”
The difficult circumstances faced by Korea’s artists caught the public’s attention when the Arts Council of Korea announced its decision to cut back 2.5 billion won worth of financial support for local novelists and poets.
Kim Byong-ik, chairman of Arts Council Korea, in a recent interview with Yonhap, said that although artists say they are poor, he wishes they would have more pride.
Kim, who is an established writer, said the sole purpose of financial support from a government-funded center is to back up significant artistic work and not to resolve the financial difficulties of artists.
Kim also added that a new program that supports four artistic categories, including stage performance, dance and traditional music, has been a great help for artists.
The program finds artistic organizations whose work is considered outstanding and funds them for three years. Some 20 percent of the funding can be used for administration expenses and paychecks.
Not long after that program began, the government announced a study that showed the hardships faced by artists in this country.
In a survey of 2,000 artists by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, only 23 percent had a monthly income of over 2 million won. Those who earned between 2 million and 1 million accounted for 20 percent. The rest earned less than 1 million won.
The study showed that writers, painters and photographers were usually worse off than traditional Korean musicians or pop artists ― 64.5 percent of writers, 49 percent of painters and 76.5 percent of photographers earned less than 100,000 won per month.
Traditional Korean musicians and pop artists who earned less than 100,000 won per month only accounted for 10.5 percent and 5 percent of their groups respectively.
In another study by Kim Daljin Art Research and Consulting, from a pool of 1,300 artists, 41.8 percent said their works were sold to people they know. Only 27.4 percent sold their work through galleries and 13.3 percent sold their work at art fairs.
The truth is that an artist isolated in his studio, who has trouble meeting people, has very little chance of making any money while he is still alive. Working together is seen by many as a solution to the problems facing Korean artists.
Hwang Chi-woo, a poet and playwright and the president of Korea National University of Arts, held a press conference last week to promote the school’s new program, designed to upgrade their courses to provide an environment for art students to collaborate with each other and expand into the global market.
Hwang agreed that the current situation for artists is not favorable. “Art is a career that is not always financially satisfying,” he said. “Many artists have been struggling for years. However, what we can do is to provide the infrastructure and the environment that can help young students to become globally competitive. I’m very sorry to say this, as an artist myself , but it is entirely up to them whether they make a living or not. And I strongly believe that being poor will stimulate their artistic talent. It is going through such emotions that bring art alive.”
In order to help struggling artists, one of the main goals of the artistic community in Korea is to increase the public’s interest in art.
“The art community is trying to approach the public with works that are more understandable and appreciated by the public,” said the former ballerina. For example, the Korea University of Arts is offering several free performances, including the opera “Rigoletto.” These run at the school campus until Saturday.
However, many reject this approach, fearing that trying to make art appeal to the general public will only degrade it, and leave avant-garde Korean artists to struggle.
No matter how difficult the situation, young artists like Lim, who put their careers on hold, are still clinging to their dreams.
“I feel uncomfortable working at my current job. I hope there will be more investment in the classical music industry,” she said. “In order for this to happen, there has to be an overall shift in the culture of classical music. Then will I be ready to hold the baton again.”


By Lee Eun-joo Contributing Writer/ Lee Ho-jeong Staff Writer [ojlee82@joongang.co.kr]
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