City-funded public art meets a fate of neglect

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City-funded public art meets a fate of neglect


Top: The cement floor of the installation on the southern end of Mapo Bridge in western Seoul is cracked. Above: The mural at a sports park in Mangwon-dong in western Seoul has been heavily vandalized. By Kim Kyung-bin

A line of columns supporting a ramp near Oksu Station is not the typical stone-gray color. The columns are painted in a bevy of contrasting colors - orange, blue, yellow and pink. The vivid display might suggest a fresh atmosphere from a distance, but if you look at the structure up close, it’s less pleasant.

The columns, severely cracked, are littered with leaflets and messy traces of tape that once was attached to fliers. Now, the structure simply blights the streetscape.

“It looks very disorganized. I want the structure to be removed unless it’s painted again,” said Moon Myung-cheol, a 54 year-old man strolling beneath the ramp.

In fact, the structure was initially part of Seoul city’s beautification project called Seoul City Gallery. In 2007, under Mayor Oh Se-hoon, it was an effort to shake off the perception that Korea’s streetscapes were cluttered and disorganized.

“I don’t know why the city began such a project if they do nothing to maintain it,” he said. Oksu Station managers said that the city had never asked it to manage the attempt at public art.

The neglect of artworks under the 15 billion won ($13.9 million) urban plan has turned some of the once-beautiful artworks into blots on the landscape.

A mural at a sports park in Mangwon-dong, western Seoul, is one of 85 initiatives under the project. But because even the graffiti on top has almost faded away, it’s hard to decipher the initial form of the mural.

A curved sculpture sitting on the southern part of Mapo Bridge is surrounded by colonies of crumbled trash and leaflets, less than appealing to commuters who use the bridge. The city spent 1.2 billion won on the sculpture.

Jung-dong Road in central Seoul, a tranquil path lined with cultural heritages and an old church, once housed four such artworks but only one - a bench near Deoksu Palace - remains. The other three, including a retro-style phone booth and a music player attached to a bench on the road, are gone.

In 2007, when the beautification project began, the city government authorized Seoul Design Foundation to carry out and oversee the plan because so many projects were under way at the same time. But since last year, there has been no new art project approved; the design policy division of the city office is nominally in charge of the existing ones.

As a once-ambitious scheme loses ground, so does the budget allocated to it. About 3.2 billion won was spent in 2007 and 8 billion won in 2008, but last year, the budget was only 1 percent of the 2008 figure, 90 million won. This year it’s even less, at 83 million won.

Experts point out that maintenance work is essential for any public art project.

“A network of residents and artists should decide how to manage public installations in their neighborhood,” said Lee Moo-yong, a professor at Chonnam National University Graduate School of Culture. “The best way to manage public art is to engage civil society to take the initiative, and Mayor Park Won-soon is trying to do so.”

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