[Viewppoint]A museum of our own‘Basquiat,” a 1996 biographic movie about the short life of American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat by director Julian Schnabel, begins with scenes of a young boy holding his mother’s hand and looking at a painting.
The mother cries as she looks at “Guernica,” one of the most notable works by Pablo Picasso, and the boy gazes at his mother. In fact, Basquiat makes up his mind to become a painter at this moment. His Puerto Rican mother frequented the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art with Basquiat.
The museums that were so accessible in New York were more than spaces filled with artworks. To the woman who wanted a temporary escape from harsh reality, museums were a refuge for her soul. To the boy, they meant a childhood garden that taught him the power of beauty and creation and gave him a dream.
What made Picasso who he was, the creator of Guernica? He is referred to as the painting genius of the century and the master of modern art, but his revolutionary paintings were not spontaneously created in a back room. Picasso is well known for frequenting museums to look at paintings by the master artists who came before him. Museums are historical sites that connect the legacy of beauty, enchantment and awe to the present.
Last Sunday, I treated myself to a visit to the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Gwacheon. But my trip was far from a leisurely weekend outing. I paid 3,000 won to see a special exhibition, “Six Decades of Korean Photography,” which was all right. However, the exhibition space was generally messy and old. Other amenities for visitors such as parking, cafe, restaurant and art shops were substandard.
The parking lot was very limited, so I had to pay 5,000 won to park at the parking lot of adjacent Seoul Land to avoid a one-hour wait. And I ended up walking over 15 minutes on the narrow shoulder to the museum. A shuttle service operates between a subway station and the museum every 20 minutes, but the bus does not run on the weekend.
There is only one restaurant in the museum, which is for the employees, and it was already closed by 1:10 p.m. The cafe, with its limited menu, is not worth mentioning at all.
The museum sends a clear message to visitors. It is shouting out loud, “What more do you want? Just see the exhibitions and leave.” The museum fails to offer artistic inspiration, creativity, imagination or vision for the future. The museum has low self-esteem and lacks a patron-driven philosophy, so we cannot expect it to offer impressive exhibitions. In 2001, 1.39 million people visited the museum. The number decreased to 920,000 in 2002, and then dropped to 770,000 last year. And the museum is growing less popular for a reason.
Lately, art and cultural leaders advocate establishing a national museum that can represent the country in downtown Seoul. The main museum in Gwacheon is too far from Seoul, and the branch near Deoksugung Palace is too small to function as a proper national museum.
It is possible that the National Museum of Contemporary Art could relocate to where the Defense Security Command used to be. It is a plan we should all welcome.
However, if we reduce the problem with the Gwacheon museum to a physical access issue and are satisfied with expanding the Seoul branch, we might miss an important chance to reinvent the National Museum of Contemporary Art.
Using this opportunity, we need to contemplate why we need an art museum in the first place, how we should resolve chronic bureaucratic problems and what a 21st-century museum should be.
People don’t go to a museum just to see paintings. We want to feel the artistic environment and atmosphere and experience and enjoy an art museum.
I am tired of being envious of and longing for the museums in the countries I visit on my rare trips overseas. I want there to be a museum that I love so I can visit and enjoy intellectual luxury right now.
I long for a museum that is truly friendly to its patrons.
*The writer is a deputy culture and sports editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Eun-ju