Creating a thriving, culture-focused Korea : With the election of a new president, culture industry looks to grow

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Creating a thriving, culture-focused Korea : With the election of a new president, culture industry looks to grow


Union Art Fair 2017, which wrapped up last week, took place for 10 days in Insa-dong, central Seoul. Remodeling an old construction, some 1,000 young artists submitted their artworks for display and sale. [UNION ART FAIR]

Breaking the art market’s high barrier of entry is not easy, especially for young artists who lack financial stability. To support these artists, the second Union Art Fair took place for ten days in Insa-dong, central Seoul, from June 23rd to July 2nd.

More than 160 young artists submitted a total of around 1,000 artworks - ranging from fine arts, sculptures to installations - for display and for sale at the fair. With 60 million won of ($53,500) financial support from the Korea Arts Management Service, an organization affiliated with the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism (MCST), young struggling artists opened up a marketplace of their own, which successfully attracted visitors from diverse backgrounds despite heavy showers that hit the nation during the fair.

“The art industry was not in good shape for 10 years, and therefore, those young artists entered the market during those years were pushed to the corner without getting [an opportunity] to hold an exhibition,” said 45-year-old Choi Du-su, who helped organize the event. “So [I] wanted to create an event that artists could enjoy and coexist while being available to the public.”


Lee Wan, left, and Choi Du-su organized the Union Art Fair. The pair have been working together over the last decade to come up with ways to help artists pave their way in the industry. [CHOI JEONG-DONG]

Choi continued, “Once provided a place, young people these days are able to form a network among themselves. I wish to make a ‘public playground,’ under the name of art. Art doesn’t necessarily always need to be shaped in physical substance like paintings or sculptures. It’s rather something that [everybody] can enjoy together. Small dots like us need to be gathered and connected to make a real content.”

Next year, the Union Art Fair may become a larger festival with a celebratory atmosphere and performances.

“Next time, I hope to open a real festival, where there’s a performance, party and fair under the title ‘Art Festa,’” said 38-year-old Lee Wan, who was also behind organizing Union Art Fair. “There is not an artist-centered festival in Korea. Meeting with artists and listening to their explanations and even getting their autographs could make people want to come [to the festival] again, creating a virtuous cycle.”

Since the launch of the new Moon Jae-in administration, MCST has promised to support artistic activities. The newly appointed culture minister Do Jong-hwan vowed for the promotion of cultural activities, including plays, movies and publications, which had been previously shunned. Despite the efforts, however, the big picture on how the government will support content creation, which is often regarded as the basic component of culture, is yet to be announced.

A group of cultural experts proposed possible ways to develop the ecosystem of cultural contents and securing competitiveness as part of “Reset Korea” project from the JoongAng Ilbo and JTBC, affiliates of the Korea JoongAng Daily.


Part of the national agenda

Today’s culture [industry] leads to a [larger] industry, which directly relates to job creation. Statistics over the last five years show that content industries grew by 4.9 percent, which is twice the size of Korea’s 2.8 percent economic growth. While the size of trade exports shrank, content exports jumped by 7.1 percent. Despite the performance, however, many say that there are not enough supportive policies to further its growth.

“The content industry only takes up 0.4 percent of the entire government budget,” said the former minister of MCST Kim Jong-min. Kim explained that it “wouldn’t be right to neglect culture” that could secure more jobs and raise profitability, and argued that fostering the content industry should be included as one of the key national agendas.

Cultural experts also stressed the importance of recognizing the need to progress cultural contents, and to possibly recognize value in something that no longer seems valuable. In the digital era, for example, things that went out of fashion could also hold commercial value.

Publish on Demand (POD) by French publishing house Les Presses Universitaires de France (PUF) is an example. PUF allows customers to browse a list of available books on a database and place their order. They can get their books - even those that went out of print - printed before their eyes in less than 20 minutes. The publishing company had to shut down amid the advance of online bookstores and decreased demand for hardcover university textbooks, but managed to survive through the digital information network. Korea’s Kyobo Book is similarly providing POD service for publications that went out of stock.

“We have reached the era in which people design and come up with ideas while labor is passed on to machines, like the 3D printer,” said book editor Jang Eun-su. “The goal of culture policies should head in a direction that promotes creative individuals to gather and form a network. Just like the film industry, in which experts of different fields flock and scatter on a project basis, high quality jobs can be created when a network based on regions, fields or genres is formed.”


From left to right are National Museum of Korean Contemporary History, a scene from the Seoul International Book Fair, held last month, and a scene from last year’s Unlimited Edition - Seoul Art Book Fair. [EONSLD, YONHAP, EH]

The cultural DIY era

An idea does not suddenly fall from the sky. New content is usually made based on modifying and processing existing content. And a consumer can be a creator and a producer in this cultural Do It Yourself (DIY) era. This means there needs to be plenty of existing contents for people to collect, publicize and share to come up with something new.

A good example of a platform that promotes recreating content is Europeana, the EU’s digital platform for cultural heritage. Europena gives people access to content from some 2,500 heritage institutions like museums, art museums and libraries. There are more than 53 million documents, pictures or videos, which people use as basis to recreate something new.

Korea also provides similar services like Korean Culture Portal and Gongu Madang, each organized by Korea Culture Information Service Agency and Korea Copyright Commission. But most of the materials provided in these services are limited, and are likely to take some time before they can develop into experiential platform involving information technologies like AI.

“Culture portal sites run by the Korean government are not fun, and therefore, are under-utilized,” said Park Sin-ui, professor from Kyung Hee University. “Old museums collected valuable items, but digital museums need to develop into an archive that collects people’s memories and stories.”

Just like the production of goods that are becoming more individualized based on an individual’s taste, culture is taking similar steps. One of the most well-received cultural events in the first part of this year was the Seoul International Book Fair, held last month. Small-sized independent publishing companies with strong personalities from around the world were invited to the fair, which attracted around 200,000 people.

“Last year’s ‘Unlimited Edition ? Seoul Art Book Fair,’ in which small-scale and independent publishing houses gathered, thrived so much that it made it difficult for visitors to pass through,” said Park Sam-cheol from Seoul Design. “Customized cultural content that [targets a small] group of people with similar values [and interests] will garner popularity.”

Industrializing cultural heritage

Cultural heritage, though it may sound old-fashioned, has a high possibility to be industrialized in the digital era. A social enterprise named Culture and Road received attention by introducing a course that explores the Han River. The organization is also offering programs that allow people to explore the natural and cultural heritage of Mt. Seorak.

“Cultural heritage has its own story. Though it doesn’t yet have strong roots, there is a great potential for cultural heritage to become industrialized,” said Lee Dong-beom, CEO of Culture and Road.

Cultural experts have expressed a similar view. “Different types of contents need to be generated in order to improve customer satisfaction and to create more jobs,” said Ahn Ho-sang, CEO of the National Theater of Korea. “Cultural policies need to be concentrated on nurturing specialized experts based on specific fields or regions.”

Professor Park Sin-ui similarly said, “Airbnb provides [customers] accommodations without [making them] go through real estate. [Jobs like] planner, curator and programmer will be under the limelight in the near future.”

Re-imagining museums

Trafalgar Square, which commemorates the Battle of Trafalgar, a British naval victory in the Napoleonic Wars with France and Spain in 1805, represents England’s history and present. Around the square is Buckingham Palace, Piccadilly Theatre, the British Museum, Covent Garden, London Eye and the National Portrait Gallery, closely connecting politics, economy, culture, tourism and leisure activities.

When Park Sam-cheol thinks of London’s Trafalgar Square, he compares it to Gwanghwamun Square.

But Gwanghwamun Square is lacking when it comes to cultural integration. Though the National Museum of Contemporary History, National Palace Museum of Korea, National Folk Museum of Korea and National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art are all concentrated in the area, they are quite segmented. Governmental institutions like the Sejong Center and the Seoul Museum of History also have a weak connection to each other, and the lack of a library is another weakness.

“[Gwangwhamun Square] can be used as a network information center where experts and citizens cooperate to help young people start their business,” said Kim Jong-min.


“축제가 곧 시장 … 작가들이 잘 놀 수 있는 판 벌이고 싶어”

“‘아트페어’로 시작하게 됐지만 본래 하고 싶었던 건 축제이자 그룹전이에요. 락페스티벌에서 보듯 축제는 소비가 일어나는 곳이죠. 축제가 곧 시장이라고 생각합니다.” 최두수(45) 작가의 말에 이완(38) 작가는 “다음에는 ‘아트 페스타’로, 공연·파티·페어가 열리는 축제로 해보고 싶다”고 했다. “국내에 작가가, 예술가가 중심인 축제가 없어요. 작가와 만나 설명도 듣고 사인도 받는 풍경이 또 오고 싶다는 선순환을 만들 수 있죠.”

이들은 최근 서울 인사동에 ‘유니온 아트페어 2017’이란 이름으로 신선하고 흥미로운 판을 벌였다. 청년작가를 중심으로 현대미술 작가 160여 명이 참여, 작품을 전시하고 직거래로 판매한 장터다. 30만원대 작품도 여럿 눈에 띌 만큼 문턱을 크게 낮춘 데다 리모델링을 앞둔 낡은 건물을 열흘 간 빌려 마련한 전시장은 독특한 멋과 젊은 분위기를 더했다. SNS(소셜네트워크서비스) 등으로 입소문이 나면서 젊은 층은 물론 행사 마지막날인 지난 2일은 비가 뿌리는 날씨에도 어린이를 동반한 가족이나 중장년, 외국인까지 다양한 관람객이 북적였다.

현장에서 만난 최두수 작가는 “미술계 불황이 10년 동안 이어져 그 사이 데뷔한 젊은 작가들은 빛도 못 보고 전시도 못 하고 궁지로 내몰렸다”며 “작가들이 공존하며 잘 노는 분위기, 대중에 다가가는 행사를 만들고 싶었다”고 취지를 전했다. 원로와 중견을 아울러 이름난 작가들도 여럿 참여해 힘을 보탰다. “전시 경험이 없는 작가들에게는 유명한 작가들과 함께 전시를 하는 것만도 엄청난 힘이 되죠. 선후배를 떠나 작가로 수평적으로 만나는 기회가 되기도 하고.”

행사를 주최한 작가단체 ‘극동예술연합’의 대표를 맡고 있는 그는 작품을 파는 장터만 아니라 “정보, 기회가 교환되는 장터가 되길 바랐다”고 말했다. "가격이 저렴해 작품을 소유하는 경험을 해볼 뿐 아니라 작가들이 미술시장이 어떻게 돌아가는지, 마케팅이나 작품가 구성을 실전으로 해보는 기회죠.” 이완 작가는 "작품을 산 분들에게 물어보면 절반 정도가 처음 미술품을 산 경우”라며 "그런 분들이 시간이 지나고 여유가 생기면 화랑에서 작품을 콜렉션 할 수 있을 것”이라고 했다. 화랑가 일부에선 직거래 장터를 경계하는 시각도 있지만 이들은 "화랑이나 미술관 기획자들이 작가를 발굴하는 기회”라며 "저희는 작가들이 화랑에 흡수되길 바란다”고 강조했다.

유니온 아트페어는 예술경영지원센터의 작가 미술장터 지원사업에 선정돼 지난해 처음 열렸다. "상업화랑에서 소외된 작가, ‘아트’라는 언어를 사용하는 작가를 모았죠. 이들에게 올해 재참가를 요청하고 작가를 소개받기도 했어요. SNS로도 추천을 받고.” 최두수 작가의 설명이다. 관람객은 닷새 동안 무료로 열린 지난해 5000명에서 유료로 열흘 간 열린 올해는 8000명으로 크게 늘었다. 판매 작품 수 역시 지난해 180여점에서 200여점으로 늘었다. 작품 평균 가격이 낮아 전체 판매액 규모가 큰 건 아니다. 그래도 지난해 1억 2000만원보다 늘어난 1억 5000만원을 기록했다. 작가들에게 판매 수수료를 받지 않는 대신 예술경영지원센터와 여러 기업의 도움을 받았다. 전시장을 빌려준 디자인하우스를 비롯해 삼성전자, 삼화페인트 등이 후원과 협찬을 했다.

앞서 최두수 작가는 영국 유학에서 돌아온 2000년대초부터 작품 활동과 더불어 다양한 전시공간을 운영해왔다. 이완 작가와는 10여년 전 처음 만나 ‘예술의 밝은 미래’ 같은 그룹전을 만들기도 했다. 이들은 "작가들이 작업장도, 전시 기회도 나누면서 서로 격려해온 경험”을 큰 자산으로 꼽는다.

거창하게 들리는 ‘극동예술연합’이란 이름은 사실 작가들의 소박한 만남에서 나왔다. "몇 해 전 이완 작가가 아트 스펙트럼이라고 큰 상을 받았을 때였어요. 극동방송국이 보이는 우리집 옥상에서 바베큐 파티를 하다 나온 말이죠.” 최두수 작가는 "예술품은 사적 소유물이 될 수 있지만 예술은 공적 가치를 만들고 나눌 수 있다”며 "그래야 창의성도 나온다”고 말했다. 올해 베니스 비엔날레에 한국관 대표작가로 다녀온 이완 작가는 다시 "잘 노는 것”을 강조했다. "작가들이 잘 놀게 해서 그 에너지와 재미에 해외 유명 콜렉터나 비평가도 와보고 싶어하는 축제로 만들어 보고 싶어요.”

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