[Outlook]Learning from failure

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[Outlook]Learning from failure

Let’s suppose that the Gwangju Biennale Foundation had not hired Shin Jeong-ah as its director of the domestic art exhibition for the event. What would have happened?
Her bogus doctorate degree from Yale probably would have just ended her employment as a professor at Dongguk University, and she would have continued her career as a curator.
Shin’s case has shown that fake academic records prevail in Korea’s art world and that some universities have hired professors in that field without doing proper evaluation.
Compared to a professor at a university, hiring someone to be director of the Gwangju Biennale requires a much more careful evaluation by experts both inside and outside Korea. The biannual event is given 10 billion won ($10.5 million) by the national government, local governments and sponsors from the private sector.
The event invites 200 noteworthy artists from around the world. The Gwangju Biennale is no longer an event only for Gwangju citizens. But the Gwangju Biennale Foundation is still full of local figures who have not worked in the art world. The foundation has a strong bureaucracy and is a half-public, half-private organization.
There is an even more serious problem ― arbitrary despotism by so-called artists who use their art careers as tools for social success, and administrative workers in the art field who call themselves professionals.
The foundation’s entire board retired after Shin’s scandal, but it is still governed in an old-fashioned way.
The head of the nominating committee and the head of the foundation, who together recommended Shin, have resigned. But some of the former board members are now back on the board and trying to avoid responsibility for employing Shin as codirector. Art theory professors, who have not studied festival management and have no experience in that field, have now joined the foundation.
For the Gwangju Biennale to regain its reputation as an international art event, the foundation must be thoroughly reshuffled. In principle, the nominating committee was only supposed to recommend a candidate, not select the director. The director should be employed through another organ, but the committee carried out the entire process and later passed responsibility to the head of the foundation. Some members of the foundation have brazenly joined the new board.
If another organ with authority, an executive committee, for instance, had implemented fair recommendation, evaluation and employment procedure, the two codirectors ― one for domestic art and the other for overseas art ― would have been selected without any problems.
The need arises to find out which board members maintained that the Gwangju Biennale would have no general director but would have two codirectors instead.
This led to all problems in the procedure, and this is the fundamental reason why the young curator was employed as a codirector for the domestic section without going through a proper evaluation.
The process of employing Okui Enwezor, the codirector for the overseas section, also contained crucial flaws. He was hired on the strength of a single board member’s recommendation and he did not undergo an evaluation.
Enwezor recently announced his plan for the Gwangju Biennale not to have a theme. He is an adviser for the Shanghai Biennale, which is a rival festival, so there is a possibility that he wants to cast the Gwangju Biennale as merely a Third World event and misuse his status as an international art event organizer.
The whole organization of the Gwangju Biennale must be thoroughly reexamined, including the employment of Enwezor as co-director, for the festival to become a truly international art fair that reflects well on Korea. If we do not look back on past wrong deeds and fix them, the same mistakes can be repeated at any time.
There are several ideas being discussed that could make the Gwangju Biennale better. To hand off the foundation over to the private sector is one idea. Some think the event should be postponed for a year. The fair could become a permanent international art center.
Now is the time to reset the festival’s direction in order to build a stronghold for modern artists and help exhibition organizers enter the global stage.

*The writer is a curator and lecturer at Seoul National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Chang Dong-kwang
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