A painting fills entire museum, despite debt

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A painting fills entire museum, despite debt

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An ink painting, top, which features Mount Cheongryang in North Gyeongsang, is believed to be the largest painting of its kind in the world. A new exhibition hall, above, in Cheongsong County, North Gyeongsang, is solely dedicated to displaying the massive painting by Lee Won-jwa. By Gong Jeong-sik

A county office in North Gyeongsang is under fire for pouring 2.5 billion won ($2.21 million) into building an exhibition hall dedicated to displaying one single, large painting.

Cheongsong County decided in 2011 to establish a new gallery when it found the county’s existing art gallery not capable of displaying a sumukhwa, or ink, painting by artist Lee Won-jwa, which measures 6.7 meters (22 feet) tall and 48 meters wide.

The new gallery located next to the existing Cheongsong Yasong Art Gallery is exclusively devoted to presenting Lee’s painting, a native of the county who also serves as chief director of the Cheongsong Yasong gallery. “Yasong” is Lee’s pen name.

The Korean literati painting, longer than a typical two-story building and wider than two train cars end-to-end, was finished in 1991 and has been preserved in museum storage since then.

“I think it’s the first time that the entire exhibit center is solely dedicated to one artwork. This is a great honor,” Lee said ahead of the gallery’s opening set for August.

The 74-year-old painter is considered a veteran ink painting specialist, but some question the appropriateness of the new exhibit hall when the county is deeply in debt, to the tune of 17.42 billion won last year and is expected to keep getting worse.

The town ranked 236th out of 244 municipal governments when measuring fiscal self-reliance.

“I’m not sure whether the painting, which depicts Mount Cheongryang, deserves the lavish exhibition room,” , said an art collector who refused to be named.

One of the artist’s works, priced at 550,000 won, failed to attract a bidder at an art auction in 2010.

“I wonder if the public officials who mindlessly spent that much money should pay,” the collector said.

Out of the 2.5 billion won, the Cheongsong County covered 1.2 billion won while the central government provided 800 million won. The North Gyeongsang Provincial Government spent the remaining 500 million won.

What makes matters worse is that the new gallery doesn’t charge admission fees but will still incur maintenance expenses of 400 million won per year.

Yet the public and county officials say that the public funds which came from taxpayers’ pockets were necessary.

“The painting is believed to be the largest ink painting in the world,” said Lee Sang-oh, an official at the Cheongsong County Office who heads culture and tourism division. “We can’t just keep the masterpiece inside a museum storage and should allow the painting to reach a wider audience,” the official said.

“If the art gallery becomes a tourist attraction, it can contribute to boosting the local economy.”

BY SONG YEE-HO, PARK EUN-JEE [ejpark@joongang.co.kr]

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