Culture is not free
The post of director of the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art has been vacant for over a year, and naturally, the vacancy has caused considerable outcry.
The controversy began when the candidate who was considered to be a top choice was disqualified in the first round of recruiting in July. Recently, the media reported that one foreigner and two Koreans made it through the second round as finalists.
Not long ago, a journalist mentioned that the new director might be brought in from abroad, so the issue has been talked about for a while. On social media, people say that the art world is just like the local football scene, in which the Korean national team is headed by a foreign coach.
But for the art director of the Gwangju Biennale, a foreign specialist was recruited. Writer, philosopher and art critic Alain de Botton served as the art director of the Cheongju International Craft Biennale. So having a foreign director is not unusual. Considering the “internationality” of contemporary art, the objective qualifications should be taken into account over the nationality of the candidate.
However, the biennale and other events are held for a limited period of time, usually two or three months. The directorship of the national museum is a different story. The position involves planning and coordinating various exhibitions, as well as domestic and international administrative work, and management and execution of the budget. The director also may have to suffer the “humiliation” of being called to the National Assembly government inspection.
Moreover, the director needs to make frequent purchases of Korean and foreign artworks, and compared to the size of the economy, the budget allotted for new acquisitions is embarrassingly small. This is something that Koreans don’t want to reveal to a foreigner. It is a shameful cultural indicator of the administration and society’s appreciation of contemporary art.
But if the directorship is guaranteed groundbreaking autonomy in budget and management comparable to the football scene, bringing in a foreigner as a director could be an option.
Recently, I reviewed cultural indicators of other countries compared to Korea. The Musee d’Orsay held a special exhibition of Impressionist Pierre Bonnard, and I noticed a small bronze name tag next to a piece. It stated that the 1899 work was acquired by the museum in 1947. It was shockingly impressive, and I couldn’t help comparing it to Korea’s situation.
In 1947, France was overcoming the devastation of World War II, and despite the Allied victory, France was going through economic challenges as severe as the defeated. Yet, the artwork had been purchased using the government budget. It was truly moving.
Just as “freedom is not free,” culture is not free. The policy of prioritizing culture in France evokes admiration. It is something Korea should not take for granted if we want to call ourselves a civilized nation. While Korean administrations have advocated “culture” without exception, it has gone no further than mere slogans.
Robert McNamara, who served as the U.S. secretary of defense and president of the World Bank, said that Pablo Picasso trades the most expensive oil in the world. It is a dramatized representation of the high value of artworks. That’s why some call the art scene the “art industry.”
Moreover, the nationality of artists and artworks should not be taken lightly considering their function as cultural messengers for the country to the world. The government should not spare support for the activities of Korean artists.
No matter who is chosen as the director of the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, I desperately hope that the new director is someone who has the insight to view the international art market and lead the domestic art scene quietly yet decisively. The government should also break the conventional system and provide drastic administrative and financial support to allow the incoming director to do his or her job. The international art world is rapidly transforming into a different type of cultural industry.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
JoongAng Ilbo, Nov. 2, Page 29
*The author is the chairman of the Membership Society of the National Museum of Contemporary Art.
by Lee Sung-nack