Shin’s talent for deception exposes art world’s shame

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Shin’s talent for deception exposes art world’s shame

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From top to bottom: The Sungkok Museum, where Ms. Shin worked as a curator; the National Museum of Contemporary Art which is run by the state; the Korean International Art Fair; and Ms. Shin, left, after she was named a co-director of Gwangju Biennale. [JoongAng Ilbo]

In 2005, recently disgraced curator and art professor Shin Jeong-ah distributed a copy of her doctoral thesis to officials at Dongguk University. It was called “Catalyst for Primitivism: For Picabia and Duchamp.” The dissertation was signed by three Yale professors and a former Yale University president.
However, Christine Mehring, one of the three professors, told the JoongAng Daily yesterday that the signature on the dissertation that Shin purports to be hers is a fake. Shin has continued to claim she graduated from Yale. It’s now apparent that all the claims she made about her doctorate are fraudulent. The scandal claimed more victims yesterday when the entire 28-member board of the Gwangju Biennale, Korea’s largest art festival, resigned. Shin was appointed as the co-director of the 2008 biennale shortly before her deceptions unravelled.
Shin, once regarded as a charismatic young curator, has left many questions about the state of Korea’s art world and the role of its curators. The art world has experienced astonishing commercial and critical success over the past few decades despite a number of major systematic flaws.
Now Shin’s fraud threatens to damage the credibility of the whole industry and it has certainly exposed weaknesses in its ethics and organization.
Kim Jun-ki, a Korean art critic with the online newspaper OhmyNews, wrote that “Shin’s case is a shame that must be shared by the Korean art world as a whole,” as it entangles a number of powerful institutions including museums, a biennale, a university and the media, which promoted her reputation and according to some, exaggerated her successes.
As a veteran freelance curator, Lee Eun-joo knows exactly how difficult it can be for young curators to announce their profession to strangers and that is likely to be even more so in the wake of the Shin scandal.
Gallery curators have always had to endure low pay, and now they are vulnerable to being tainted by Shin’s deceptions.
Those curators who stay in the profession are often those who get addicted to the charms of art. Lee includes herself in this category. She works as a project curator for Brain Factory, an alternative gallery in a quiet alley near the president’s residence. As she works toward her doctoral degree, she makes her living by hopping from her gallery job to teaching and writing promotional material for artists.
However, for many, the Korean art world is an industry that sparkles with glamour, not least because TV soap operas tend to view curators as the deep-pocketed daughters of conglomerate tycoons, elegantly clad in power suits with brooches and pearl necklaces, lunching with wealthy collectors. This image, although somewhat of a made-for-television fantasy, is not entirely delusional.
For years, almost every major public museum in Korea was run by the wife of a Jaebeol magnate and the influence these Gucci-clad aesthetes have had on the Korean art world has been enormous.
Take the names of some of the Korean museums. There’s the Leeum, owned by Hong Ra-hee, the wife of Samsung chairman Lee Kun-hee, which has a collection of national treasures that rivals local museums run by the state. ArtSonje Center, now geared toward modernist art, is run by the wife of the former chairman of Daewoo Group and her daughter. There are also corporate wives on the board of directors at the Art Center Nabi, run by SK; the Kumho Museum (Kumho Group) and the Sungkok Art Museum (Ssangyong Group). All have focused on the work of big-name artists from abroad.
An anecdote still enjoyed by local critics is telling. It asks why minimalism became so popular here during the mid-’90s. The answer is that the wife of a corporate chairman was allegedly infatuated with the genre.
Although corporate museums have done much to advance art appreciation in Korea, they have also contributed to the parlous condition of the art business, which is beset by the power battles of galleries vying to crank out big shows and hire curators with flashy resumes even as their artistic integrity has increasingly diminished.
“When state-owned museums are focusing on large-scale, public-friendly exhibitions, usually involving foreign names, you would think there would be leeway for other galleries to try something new,” said Lee Myung-jin, the owner of Gallery Sun Contemporary in northern Seoul. “On the contrary, commercial galleries, instead of looking for new talent, want to secure artists that create a buzz and produce the most revenue.”
Suh Jin-suk, the director of Loop, a gallery specializing in alternative art, agrees. “It’s a vicious cycle,” he said. “If commercial galleries and alternative spaces do not risk hosting small, experimental exhibitions, there will be that much more competition and the role of the curator will be focused on public relations, not art.”
“The lesson of Shin is that the Korean art world is increasingly inattentive to the essence of art, the quality of exhibitions and the exchange of ideas,” said Kim Hong-hee, a former commissioner of the Gwangju Biennale. “It reflects a lack of morality within the art world, which no one dares to talk about, because none of us are free from the kind of self-seeking behavior that made Shin Jeong-ah possible.”
But the Korean art world did not slip into its ethical morass overnight. Its no secret that success in the contemporary art world is mapped out by a few individuals and institutions who control a tight network of well-connected and powerful hegemonists.
They guarantee that the big exhibits feature artists who meet the tastes of powerhouse museums and galleries, their clients and dealers along with the critics and curators whose connections with the media, art fairs and international biennales ensure that their voices are heard.
In Korea’s case, corruption has been rife. Artists have been arrested for offering bribes to secure commissions from developers, who are obliged by law to spend one percent of their construction fee on artwork in the lobbies of their buildings. The Gwangju Biennale, run by the provincial government, has been repeatedly criticized for its excessive bureaucracy and biases against emerging Korean artists. In one example, the biennale was attacked for the uneven distribution of its budget, after offering better space and more money to foreign artists with better-known names.
Curators themselves are noted for often behaving like feudal lords.
“There is a general tendency among many Korean curators to treat interaction with artists and the setup of shows as an unnecessary part of their work,” said Lee, the curator of Brain Factory. “That’s like trying to blow your nose without getting your hands dirty. Without field experience you end up imposing your theory on an artist’s work. Unfortunately, curators can get away with that kind of attitude if they can mingle well with powerful members of the organization. As a result,the curators have become more and more detached from artists and the spirit of art.”
There are other signs of the power struggles that dominate the Korean art world in the different cliques that divide curators and artists into clear sets of rivals. For example, there’s the rivalry between a group of modernists who are heavily influenced by Western art and politically-minded minjung artists who are rooted in the people’s art of the 1980s.
The rivalry between new and established commercial galleries is even more fierce.
Grace Kong, the director of Gallery Kong, which opened last year, was stunned when the Korean-American curator of an international art fair in New York told her that the director of a collective of Korean galleries had approached her, saying that the collective would select only certified galleries from Korea to attend the November event, as opposed to taking random applications from all galleries.
“I was bluntly told by an arts reporter that I wouldn’t last long in this industry if I didn’t join the collective immediately,” Kong said. “I like working independently, and I have no plan to join any form of institution, but this is clearly a way for the collective to enhance its power and isolate galleries outside of their network.”
Then there is the rivalry among established galleries.
Park Ryu-sook, the director of Park Ryu-sook Gallery, one of the oldest galleries in Seoul, recently told the press that she has a difficult time keeping the artists she discovers at international art fairs because competing galleries “snatch them away” as soon as they begin to sell.
Whether or not the artists and curators are prepared to admit it, the Korean art world comes down to money.
“The distrust among artists, dealers and clients is over the top,” says Kong. “The clients always try to bargain when they come in, because they are so used to dealers who increase the sale price of an artwork and offer the lowest possible payment to the artists. Even if we list the original purchase price up-front, they simply don’t trust us. That’s the reality of art collecting in Korea.”
But more urgently, many in the industry ― commercial galleries and public museums ― feel that the curating profession has been thrown into crisis by the Shin scandal and that curators will now find their credentials under greater scrutiny.
“Employment in the art world relies heavily on personal recommendations from people who are connected within the industry,” says Lee, the owner of Gallery Sun Contemporary. “If a person comes in with good recommendations from a senior figure in this industry, there is often no fact-checking involved.”
Educational programs for aspiring curators in Korea are highly limited and that makes it difficult for them to keep abreast of the global art market, which is why a degree from abroad is a top priority for most curators. Next on the list is their people skills and an international network to connect the gallery to the market.
“There is no fail-safe system for the employment of curators,” said Choi Mi-ri, the owner of Gallery Lumiere in southern Seoul. “In Korea, curating is viewed as a status job rather than a professional line of work. Galleries have almost become places that rent space.”
Some say Shin’s talent was that she could organize successful exhibitions and that she thrust galleries into a spotlight bright enough to blind them to her fraud. Others say her ability was slight and that her deceptions were concealed by powerful members of the art world for motives that have yet to be revealed. The responsibility for finding the truth now lies in the hands of prosecutors.
By Park Soo-mee Staff Writer [myfeast@joongang.co.kr]
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