Shinsegae strikes the right note with musical patronage

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Shinsegae strikes the right note with musical patronage


Visitors look at traditional Korean musical instruments that were originally displayed at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 during the “Musical Instruments of Joseon in America” exhibition at the National Museum of Korea in 2013. Provided by the National Gugak Center

Korea’s first modern-day department store was the central Seoul branch of Mitsukoshi Department Store, which opened in October 1930 while the country was under Japanese colonization (1910-45).

Today, that very building is the flagship Shinsegae Department Store, which is famous for its high-end grocery and dessert sections, as well as its spectacular light installation during the year-end holiday season.

But if you thought tasteful and decadent packaging or displaying and selling goods was the biggest forte of Shinsegae Group, whose main affiliate is Shinsegae Department Store, you might want to think again.

Having established Korea’s first department store, thereby playing a prominent role in Korea’s modernization, Shinsegae Group is deeply interested in restoring the country’s history and eventually boosting cultural experiences for Koreans through these efforts.

The company’s Vice Chairman and CEO Chung Yong-jin’s personal interest in music, art, history, culture and humanities further encourages Shinsegae’s commitment to its patronage in those areas. Chung has told Korean media in the past that he would be a pianist if he hadn’t become a CEO.

Today, Shinsegae is an influential conglomerate specializing in Korea’s retail, fashion, hospitality, and food and beverage industries. Besides the department store, the group’s high-profile businesses include E-Mart supermarkets, Westin Chosun hotels, Shinsegae duty-free shops, Starbucks Korea and Premium Outlets.

The Korea JoongAng Daily examined Shinsegae Group’s latest cultural patronage projects.

Locating lost history

In 1893, the United States held the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, celebrating the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ voyage to the New World. Korea was one of 47 countries that took part in the fair, which ran for six months.

But its presence at the expo was small. The Korean section, located in the southern part of the Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building, measured just 899 square feet (83.5 square meters).

By comparison, China’s exhibition covered 6,390 square feet and Japan’s 39,542, according to a 2000 dissertation by Kim Young-na, an art history professor at Seoul National University and director of the National Museum of Korea.

While most countries showcased their advances in industry and technology, most of Korea’s exhibits consisted of daily necessities.

Among the items Koreans displayed were musical instruments. But it took 120 years for those to come home - albeit briefly.

The National Gugak Center brought back eight of the 10 items and showed them at the “Musical Instruments of Joseon in America” exhibition at the National Museum of Korea in Yongsan District, central Seoul.

The Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts leased the exhibits to the museum, which is where Shinsegae came in.

Since 2012, the National Gugak Center has been attempting to raise awareness of artifacts related to Korean gugak, or traditional music largely consisting of court and folk music, that are scattered around the world.

In 2013, a month before the “Musical Instruments of Joseon in America” exhibition, the retail giant pledged an annual 200 million won ($181,594) to the National Gugak Center for three years on all activities aimed at repatriating relics related to the traditional music genre that are kept overseas.

Lee Seung-jae, the center’s public relations official, told the Korea JoongAng Daily that Shinsegae’s patronage is a huge help.

“It’s not easy locating old Korean musical instruments abroad and bringing them back,” he said, explaining why exhibitions created from leased artifacts are very meaningful.

The center is currently working to locate gugak relics kept in Japan, he said. Most of Korea’s displaced cultural properties are kept in Japan, as the country’s colonial rulers often resorted to cultural exploitation.

In an attempt to increase interest in traditional music, Shinsegae also held several gugak concerts in 2013 in its own culture halls and offered discounts on traditional concerts at the National Gugak Center with Shinsegae-affiliated credit cards.

Last year, Shinsegae also sponsored the center’s “Korea & Europe, An Encounter in Musical Instruments” exhibition, where 22 instruments made between the 16th and 19th centuries in Europe were shown, along with some 12 Korean gugak artifacts from the center’s collection.


Traditional stringed instruments dangbipa (left) and yanggum (center) and a traditional drum are among the older Korean musical instruments that are kept overseas. The three are in the possession of the Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts. Provided by the National Gugak Center

Support for tradition

Today, gugak is increasingly losing its foothold, overshadowed by the popularity of contemporary music. And despite Korea’s 5,000-year history, experts say surviving instruments are scarce, although there are many music scores and related historical documents.

They explain that this is mainly because most old musical instruments, particularly those that were homemade and used at local folk venues, were not retained as their value went unrecognized.

Similar items used at royal courts were destroyed during Japanese colonization and the Korean War (1950-53).

“As Korea’s first department store, Shinsegae has been working with the National Gugak Center on special exhibitions and performances that are aimed at promoting gugak,” said Jang Jae-yeong, CEO of Shinsegae Department Store, upon signing the deal.

He added that Shinsegae will continue to extend its support in the future to boost people’s interest in gugak.

The memorandum of understanding with Shinsegae, meanwhile, will renew every three years unless either party objects, according to Lee of the National Gugak Center.

But gugak is hardly the only tradition Shinsegae is trying to save that is losing ground in contemporary society. Intangible cultural properties are also benefiting from Shinsegae’s cultural patronage.

Under the so-called “important intangible cultural properties” scheme, the government labels elements of Korean culture as traditional: for instance methods for making earthenware, along with a person who has learned that skill, which is often handed down from a famous master.

Last year, Shinsegae Chosun Hotel, which runs duty-free shops, and the state-run Cultural Heritage Administration signed an MOU, under which Shinsegae promised spaces in its duty-free shops for these artisans to sell their creations.

So far its duty-free shop in Busan sells the work of artisans in five areas, including traditional knot-making and lacquerware, but the company plans to expand the sales venues in the future. In addition, Shinsegae is also providing consultations to artisans in order to help them develop their marketing capabilities.

“There have been many one-time support projects for artisans, but this marks the first where artisans’ creativity pursuits are encouraged and new values are created through increased sales activities,” Rha Sun-hwa, the head of the CHA, told reporters at the MOU signing.

An official at Shinsegae said reviving traditional culture bears special meaning for the company, which also runs the country’s oldest hotel. The Westin Chosun Hotel Seoul opened as Korea’s first Western-style hotel in 1914.

This isn’t the first collaboration between Shinsegae and the CHA. The two restored Hwangudan, the 1897 octagonal structure that used to house ancestral tablets, in 2006.

Humanities are key


Left: Shinsegae has allocated space for the work of traditional artisans at its duty-free shop in Busan. Center: Shinsegae is taking part in the government-led “Culture Day” program. Right: Vice Chairman and CEO Chung Yong-jin hopes to promote humanities through lectures and sponsorship. Provided by Shinsegae

Shinsegae’s commitment to cultural patronage is possible because of Vice Chairman and CEO Chung Yong-jin’s dedication to humanities.

Chung reportedly told the company’s executives early last year to “put patronage in culture and arts as the next priority after corporate management.” He has also explained his wish to become “Korea’s Medici family,” referring to the prominent clan in Florence known for their wealth and patronage of arts, in interviews with local dailies.

So it comes as no surprise that Shinsegae was the first private entity to take part in the “Culture Day” program led by the Presidential Committee for Cultural Enrichment last March, donating 1 billion won for the cause until the end of 2014.

Under the program, cultural programs are available on the final Wednesday of each month, which the government has designated as Culture Day, for free or at discounted rates. The rates apply to admission to galleries, museums, musical performances, movies and sporting events.

To make Culture Day a success, Shinsegae has been holding concerts on the last Wednesday of every month since last March at its performance halls and has encouraged employees to leave work on time that day.

“One of the Park Geun-hye administration’s key policies lies in cultural enrichment, which is quite rare compared to the previous administration,” Park Min-gwon, the first vice culture minister, told reporters at a recent briefing.

He added that it is encouraging that corporations are also showing their support for the initiative.

Chung Yong-jin is also highly interested in the study of humanities, with the academic field rapidly losing popularity at universities in Korea.

Many colleges have either eradicated their humanities curricula or have merged them with others as graduates of those schools find it difficult to land jobs, thus lowering demand for such courses.

Shinsegae declared 2014 to be the year it would start promoting humanities. It also pledged an annual 2 billion won to promote the field.

Chung himself toured 10 universities and gave lectures on why humanities matter and still retain an important position in the contemporary corporate world. Shinsegae also selected 20 students who took part in Chung’s lectures and sent them on a fully funded 10-day tour to Italy.

In a recent interview with Korean magazine Top Class, Im Byeong-seon, vice president at Shinsegae Group’s strategic department who oversees the humanities campaign, said the company believes humanities is the field that questions the basics of human society. He added that Shinsegae wanted to “find ways to contribute to Korean society through humanities.”

However, he also emphasized that the campaign is aimed at promoting humanities rather than recruiting employees.

Kim Shi-hwan, a communication official at Shinsegae, told the Korea JoongAng Daily that the tours will also take place this year, with one planned in April, although the venue has not been confirmed just yet.


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