Shin: searching for the real person

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Shin: searching for the real person

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Shin Jeong-ah.

People who knew Shin Jeong-Ah over the years have divided views about her character.
To some, Shin, the shamed art curator and professor who is accused of forging her academic credentials, was a polite young woman adored by many senior Korean artists for her good manners and vigorous attitude toward her job. For others, she was a diplomat wearing a sophisticated disguise who had trouble finding answers when asked to discuss artistic subjects at serious academic forums.
Her critics do not seem surprised by the national scandal involving Shin, who was exposed in July for faking her undergraduate, masters and doctoral degrees and then, last week, was alleged to have been involved in an illicit love affair with Byeon Yang-kyoon, a former chief-policy secretary to the president, who, it’s claimed, abused his power and position to protect Shin.
But long before the scandal broke, many in the local art world say they have heard people talk about Shin’s lavish lifestyle, exaggerated gestures and poor writing skills.
One mid-career editor at an art magazine, who had been introduced to Shin through an acquaintance, recalls an incident a few years ago when the curator quickly turned away and ran to greet an elderly artist when the editor approached her to chat during a gallery opening.
“I think she deliberately avoided contact with younger curators and artists, because the art scene here is such a small community that it’s so easy for us to find out who studied where and who they know simply by asking around,” she says. “Shin was clearly aware that people of her own generation in the art scene could have easily found out about her background if they wanted to. So she stayed away from them, and built her network around older artists who would be less likely to doubt her academic record or know people from her age group. And they were the ones who helped her career.”
But aside from academic forgery, Shin was challenged by her colleagues about other ethical issues during her tenure at Sungkok Art Museum.
In one instance, a director of a commercial art gallery in Seoul claims that Shin took a commission from one of his gallery’s contract photographers in return for fixing him up with contacts at a local bank. The deal was signed the day before Shin left for Paris in July, a week before the scandal broke out.
“If you were a freelance curator it would be perfectly acceptable for you to get involved in art dealing,” says the gallery director. “But if you’ve been doing this while you work for a museum, you are using your connections and title for personal gain, which is completely unethical.”
Shin’s scandal claimed other victims, including the 28 board members of the Gwangju Biennale, Korea’s largest art festival, who resigned shortly after her academic forgery unraveled.
Even after the scandal broke, the Gwangju jury’s selection procedure remained confidential.
But in a press conference held earlier this month, Han Kap-soo, the former chairman of the biennale’s foundation, made an official declaration that there was no pressure from any powerful figures to make Shin the biennale’s co-director. However, it has since been discovered that during the first round of voting at a board meeting on July 4, Shin was not on the final shortlist, which consisted of Kim Seung-deuk, the project director at Le Consortium, Centre d’Art Contemporain, Dijon, and Park Man-woo, a former artistic director of the Busan Biennale, the nation’s second-largest international art event.
Out of the top two candidates, Han explained that Kim refused to take the position when the committee didn’t approve of her selecting the biennale’s foreign artistic director for herself, and Park, the remaining candidate, was claimed to be inadequate because he supposedly lacked experience handling large international art events on the scale of Gwangju. However, the foundation then applied a double standard and nominated Shin, who had never directed an international biennale of any type.
Han explained that her exhibition profile and her position as a museum curator along with her doctoral degree from Yale satisfied the biennale’s search criteria for a directorial position.
Contrary to Han’s explanation, however, many curators and critics on the local art scene agree that Shin’s shows were never well regarded by experts.
“Her shows were not particularly noted for their originality,” says a former director of a contemporary art museum. “She managed to bring in many celebrity artists, but she was also noted for duplicating shows that had already been done by other museums outside of Korea.”
At work Shin was noted for her meticulous attention to the details of network building as reflected in her habit of remembering the birthdays of senior artists and sending them flower baskets.
An anonymous magazine editor was recently told by a curator friend, a former colleague of Shin, that if you were hired as one of Shin’s interns, you had start by wrapping holiday gifts for people on her VIP list, which often included expensive items like Hermes scarves
“She was one of those young people who acted like an older person,” observed one contemporary artist who briefly met Shin to show her a portfolio. “She was somewhat authoritarian toward staff who worked for her, asking them to bring stuff to her desk in a tone that somebody would use to give orders. She didn’t seem easygoing at all.”
But others, especially the senior artists who had known Shin since her earlier days at Kumho Museum, remain sympathetic to the curator. Some insist that naked photos of Shin that were printed last week on the front pages of major Korean newspapers ― partially covered with a black box ― might have come from a photographer’s portfolio who digitally attached Shin’s face to the body of a Caucasian woman.
Some noted senior documentary photographers who worked closely with Shin over the years still fondly recall her as being “quick” and “well mannered.”
“She would gladly come along when we called her up to eat with us as we passed by Sungkok,” he says. “When news about her plagiarized thesis first broke we were certain that the event would end as an isolated incident. We still don’t have any bad feelings toward her. I just feel sorry about her situation.”
But many in the art world are puzzled by Shin’s connections with powerful political figures such as Byeon and others in the Blue House. Shin explained that she had met all the politicians who have been named in the scandal through her work. She said the officials often visited Sungkok after they had eaten at nearby restaurants.
“It’s very possible that was how their relationship began,” says a former curator of Sungkok. “The museum was consciously trying to draw government figures in and treated them as VIPs because the owner was keen on the political scene.”
One curator adds that it is common practice for curators of private museums to build networks with powerful figures because it is a good way for the institution to build a stronger reputation and attract donations, while commercial galleries tend to expand their territory by relying on sales of artwork and national museums are funded by the state.
Some still insist that the basis of Shin’s success was her networking strategies in an industry where a person is often evaluated in terms of who they know rather than what they know.
“The whole scandal reflects the shallow understanding of culture among many individuals in power in Korean society today,” says Chung Jun-mo, the former director of the National Museum of Contemporary Art, Korea. “They think of art as being like a flashy tie with a sharp suit. It really shows that our society has a tasteless bureaucracy that was blinded by a young female curator with a doctoral degree from Yale. Their interests coincided with Shin’s ambition.”


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By Park Soo-mee Staff Writer [myfeast@joongang.co.kr]

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