[Outlook]Art for the people

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[Outlook]Art for the people

On March 14, the culture ministry said during a briefing for the president that it would scrap the entrance fees for the National Museum of Contemporary Art and the National Museum of Korea.
Beginning this spring, people can see artwork in the public museums without paying any money. But as a person who runs a gallery, I feel more worried than happy to hear the news.
Because of differences between the two museums, it will cause problems if Korea’s National Museum of Contemporary Art successfully follows the example of the National Gallery in London. The European world-class gallery follows the unusual practice of not charging any entrance fee. The National Gallery has not charged an entrance fee since 1838 in order to increase the opportunity for common people to appreciate art, which was earlier accessible only to a privileged few.
Thanks to this policy, people don’t have to pay to see masterpieces, such as “The Arnolfini Portrait,” by Jan Van Eyck; “The Ambassadors” by Hans Holbein the Younger, which is regarded as one of the best portraits from the 16th century; and “The Virgin of the Rocks” by Leonardo Da Vinci, the Renaissance giant.
The National Gallery impresses visitors not only with the quality of its collection but also with its quantity of original masterpieces. Unlike other galleries that keep works of art to themselves and display only part of their collection, the National Gallery displays everything it has. That means it offers a truly great collection.
The only national gallery in Korea, however, doesn’t have much to show in terms of either quantity or quality. Even though it is called the National Museum of Contemporary Art, it doesn’t even have a single piece by Pablo Picasso.
Two self-portraits by Andy Warhol are the collection highlights that the museum proudly presents. But it is not at all difficult to find commercial galleries in Korea that have several works by the American pop artist.
How can the National Gallery in London house so many valuable masterpieces from the history of art? If art collectors donate their work to the gallery, the government allows them to pay inheritance tax using works of art instead of money. Art pieces that are sold to the National Gallery were exempted from taxation. But in Korea, as far as I know, and hopefully due to a lack of knowledge on my part, there hasn’t been any news about people donating artwork to the national museum or the government creating measures to help public galleries aquire world-class art items.
This is not the only difference. London’s National Gallery offers many valuable services to help visitors better understand the exhibition. To help people who are not very knowledgeable about art, the gallery offers detailed information about where works of art can be found, how works of art were donated to the museum and how much the gallery paid for the pieces.
The gallery also displays works of art and organizes exhibitions with great care, as if opening a book about art for the audience. Meanwhile, with the budget and manpower of the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Korea, it is only wishful thinking that it will offer first-class service to visitors.
Access to the museum is yet another difference. The National Gallery in London is located in the heart of the city, Trafalgar Square, which serves as a meeting place for Londoners and tourists alike. In contrast, the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Korea is situated on a remote hillside in Gwacheon, a suburban city directly south of Seoul.
Okay, let’s admit it. The National Museum of Contemporary Art has a poor collection, its artworks doesn’t quite move the audience and it is hard to get to.
How many people, except for hard-core art lovers, will rush to the museum just because it is free to the public?
What’s more important than making museum visits free is to house works of art of great artistic value, develop services and programs for visitors and relocate the museum to a place more accessible to public transportation.
If the government and the museum want to impress people, they need to seriously study successful museums opened to serve the public good before presenting spontaneous measures aimed simply at increasing approval ratings.
The culture ministry should present tangible measures to create national museums that can truly touch people’s hearts.

*The writer is the director of the Savina Museum of Contemporary Art and a professor at Kookmin University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Lee Myung-ok
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