Artists find an unlikely home

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Artists find an unlikely home


Kim Jae-sung, a resident artist, crafts elaborate paper lamps at the Sindang Creative Arcade, part of the Central Market in downtown Seoul. Photos provided by the Seoul Foundation of Arts and Culture

At the Central Market in Hwanghak-dong, downtown Seoul, there’s a purple sign that reads “Sindang Creative Arcade,” pointing to one of Seoul’s most unusual underground shopping centers.

A year ago, the area focused on seafood, and half of the 50 or so storefronts were empty. Then, in August, the artists started to arrive. Today there are about 20 restaurants and marine products shops left, but the rest are busy again, under signs bearing unusual names such as “Otchil House Year,” “Engraver Who Draws” and “Spring Tree.”

Forty performers, photographers, illustrators and other artists occupy rooms, some as small as 3.3 square meters (35 square feet), totally rent-free, only called upon to pay utility bills that average 5,000 won ($4.40) a month. On one modest table sits lacquered cell phone charms, on another a lamp made of traditional Korean paper, on others accessories made of gold, silver, lapis, crystal, coral, agate and pearl.

The once-gloomy gray hallways are now covered with photographs like a gallery. The biggest shop has been transformed into a public workroom with a kiln, pottery wheel, other equipment and a table for artists to use for monthly meetings.


Artists decorate an iron Christmas tree created by the arcade’s metal workers for the 2009 holiday season.

Passers-by can watch the artists work through glass walls.

But this isn’t some guerrilla Bohemian operation - it’s a government program, made possible thanks to the support of the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism and the Small and Medium Business Administration, part of a national campaign to preserve and revitalize Korea’s traditional markets.

According to Culture Minister Yu In-chon and SMBA Director Hong Suk-woo, the organizations agreed to start the Creative Arcade project in late 2009, and their efforts have already gone far beyond that, creating other public areas and renovating existing shops to attract customers.

At Ulsan’s traditional markets, electronic LED signboards have been installed to bring in customers. Private merchants are also being encouraged to accept credit card payments, especially with fees on such services set to be lowered this quarter.

The diverse range of businesses that fall under the project are evidence of the government’s commitment to combining culture and tourism, and the results have already been felt, garnering a considerable response from the communities involved.

Lee Mi-hwa created Next Door Shop, an empty shop decorated in red to look like a kiosk, after she finished studying abroad in Germany. The place is used as a venue for meetings with the artists at the arcade.


Kim Do-jin, a tenant at the arcade, teaches ceramics at his studio. The arcade offers training in a wide variety of crafts.

“I wanted to revive and reconnect with the market area and create a space where anyone could come and talk to the artists,” Lee explained.

To help artists like Lee, the Market Management Support Center, an organization that provides marketing support for small businesses, has created an initiatives committee to push the project forward.

The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism and the SMBA are now trying to win support from the Seoul city government for the arcade.

The artists and new shop owners are also doing their part to give back to the community, collectively deciding to donate all of their earnings to low-income families struggling with everyday expenses.

At the market, onlookers screen-printed artists’ drawings onto T-shirts, examined artwork and even got to speak with the artists about their work.

To celebrate the holidays, artists decorated the ceilings of the hallways with cotton snow and hung model houses beneath them to create an “upside-down snow world.” Metal crafters even created an iron Christmas tree in the hallway.

“It feels great to see people filing through an area that was once dead and empty,” said a 63-year-old clothing store owner, Lee Bun-ho.

For 10,000 won, visitors can learn how to make their own arts and crafts at the Sindang Creative Arcade, including clay cups, necklaces with engraved names, mirrors made with various stones, and even books of fairy tales.

Kim Ki-young, 28, has fallen in love with the new arcade and comes here to take pottery and ceramics classes after work.

“I’m so happy that there’s a place nearby where I can enjoy art and learn how to perfect my own artwork,” Kim said.

By Kim Kyeong-jin []
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