Musing on the Lee collectionJANG JOO-YOUNG
The author is a national team reporter of the JoongAng Ilbo.
The “Bilbao effect” refers to the revival of a declining city thanks to a new landmark. It is named after Bilbao, a small city in northern Spain. The city, situated along the Nervion River, used to be an affluent region with steel and shipbuilding industries, but it began to decline in the 1980s. When the Guggenheim Museum opened in 1997, however, it was reborn as a tourist attraction visited by people from all over the world.
In July, a debate over the Bilbao effect started in Korea over the location of a museum for the collection donated to the government by late Samsung Group Chairman Lee Kun-hee. The gifts include 23,000 pieces of cultural property and artworks. Many local governments — including Busan, Daegu and South Gyeongsang Province — jumped in, claiming to have associations with Lee. What they advocated was the Bilbao effect. They also cited the overconcentration of cultural and art infrastructure in the capital region.
But the art world argued that the museum should be located in Seoul rather than other regions for accessibility. They also doubted the Bilbao effect. Lee’s gift includes paintings by Gauguin and Chagall and ceramic works by Picasso, but most are pieces with historic and academic value for researchers rather than tourists. Members of the art world claimed it was hard to expect such a collection to attract tourists.
In the end, the government sided with this position. The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism and the Seoul Metropolitan Government agreed to build the Lee Kun-hee Museum in Songhyun-dong in central Seoul from Nov. 10 and signed a business agreement.
That was a follow-up measure to the government’s earlier announcement that it will build it either at the site of the National Museum in Yongsan or in Songhyun-dong. The museum is to be built over 9,787 square meters (2.4 acres). An international design competition will be held in the second half of 2022. The goal is to complete and open the museum in 2027.
Was it really an inevitable decision to build it in Seoul? There is no guarantee that the Lee Kun-hee Museum would help revive a local economy. But at a time when a theory of extinction of local areas is being discussed due to their fast-declining population and the slowdown of the local economy, the decision certainly helped boost a sense of deprivation and loss for residents of non-capital areas.
The artworks left by Lee are important, but it is just as important to care for the wounds left by the bidding war.