Where BTS's RM goes, fans will flock ― and art venues aren't complaining
When he’s not rapping or producing songs as the leader of BTS, RM, whose real name is Kim Nam-joon, frequently embarks on trips to art museums and galleries, further solidifying his image as an art enthusiast.
More importantly, he is known to be one of Korea’s most influential young art collectors — one piece from his collection is even on display at “Kwon Jin Kyu Centennial: Angel of Atelier,” a retrospective of the late artist Kwon Jin Kyu (1922-1973) currently being held at the Seoul Museum of Art (SeMA) in central Seoul.
Kwon is famous for his lifelike terracotta and lacquer sculptures generally depicting females, animals and his own face. Among some 240 artworks made by Kwon, one white horse sculpture owned by RM, titled “Horse” (c. 1965), was lent by him to SeMA for the exhibition.
Compared to other SeMA exhibitions, visitors to Kwon’s retrospective has been significantly higher — an average of 1,300 people visit each day, its curator Han Hee-jean told the Korea JoongAng Daily.
There are many other celebrities known to be art enthusiasts, like Big Bang’s T.O.P, who has said in the past that he “spends 95 percent of his income buying artwork,” and G-Dragon, who for the first time held his own solo exhibition at SeMA in 2015.
However, the reason why RM is considered to have a wider impact within the art world is because he has a stronger image as a museum-goer rather than a collector. This has ultimately helped art become more mainstream by attracting more people to art museums, insiders have collectively told the Korea JoongAng Daily.
“RM has played an essential role in making trips to art museums more enjoyable,” Park Kyung-mee, founder and director of PKM Gallery, told the Korea JoongAng Daily. “At first, uploading photos of art to his social media was a way to share his life with his fans: It certainly wasn’t to flaunt. His visits to art museums were a natural part of his life, and this encouraged fans, and ultimately the general public, to go as well.”
Most art museums, like the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) and Busan Museum of Art, are unaware that RM had visited until after he posts on social media.
“He comes by the museum often, but he only comes with one or two people and he does it quietly,” an insider for the MMCA told the Korea JoongAng Daily. “We don’t know when he’s here — we find out along with everyone else when he uploads pictures of his visits on social media.”
“I didn’t think his interest and love for art was really genuine until I actually met him,” an insider for an art gallery told the JoongAng Ilbo. “Surprisingly, he was extremely serious [about art]. If RM didn’t do music, I think he probably would have gone to graduate school to study art history or theory.”
Youn Bum-mo, the director of the MMCA, told Maeil Business Newspaper that he coincidentally had a chance to have a conversation with RM at the museum once, and marveled at how RM had “a broad range of knowledge about art.”
Years of admiration
So how exactly has RM been showing his love for the past few years?
Since its debut in 2013, BTS has managed a joint Twitter account, and RM would occasionally show snippets of his excursions to art museums or galleries by uploading pictures on Twitter. He’s visited places all over the country: the Daegu Art Museum, Buk Seoul Museum of Art, Kumho Museum of Art and the PKM Gallery being just a few examples. He even visited the Palazzo Fortuny art museum in Venice, Italy, to see the retrospective of the late artist Yun Hyong-keun (1928-2007), famous for dansaekhwa, or Korean monochrome paintings.
Then in December last year, when the BTS members each created their own separate Instagram accounts, RM’s feed essentially turned into an art gallery, filled with specially-chosen pieces.
In a Vogue interview late last year, he said he is especially fond of Korean art, after he “became conscious of [his] Korean identity after [BTS] began working in the United States.” As he “[likes] keeping things that are close to [his] heart near [him],” this influenced him to start buying Korean artwork.
He’s shown artwork on the walls of what is presumed to be his home that he has collected from artists like Yun, Kim Whanki (1913-1974), 51-year-old Joung Young-ju, 84-year-old Kim Chong Hak, Kim Tschang-yeul (1929-2021) and 65-year-old Lee Bae, on Instagram.
He also posted an autograph he supposedly received from now-85-year-old artist Lee Ufan that he has since deleted from his profile.
Moon jar hugger
RM has gone so far as to incorporate his love for Korean art into his work, or BTS-related content. In February 2021, when the members revealed a series of drawings through posts on Weverse, a fan community platform, of how they would decorate a room for their fans, titled “ARMY’s Room,” RM included a moon jar, shown by a large white porcelain jar, and a sabang takja, or a traditional Korean shelf unit that is open on all sides, and gave brief explanations of the art.
More longtime fans were already aware that RM was a fan of moon jars when he uploaded a photo of himself hugging a moon jar made by 70-year-old ceramic artist Kwon Dae-sup on social media in 2019.
Attraction to ancient art
RM’s passion for art does not start from contemporary and modern art — it also goes back to ancient art. In late January, RM posted about his trip to the National Museum of Korea’s “A Room of Quiet Contemplation” exhibition, where two pensive bodhisattva statues, National Treasures No. 78 and No. 83, are on permanent display.
The pensive bodhisattva statues show a Buddha immersed in deep thought.
Last year in June, after fans saw two pastel-toned miniature bodhisattva statues that he had bought at the museum on the desk of his studio, the miniatures immediately sold out.
Boost in visitors
Because RM attracts so much attention for the places he goes, there is even a saying in the media that “the domestic art world is divided into exhibitions that RM did, and did not, visit.” Art museums and galleries have revealed that their visitors increase after a visit by RM.
In 2019, after RM dropped by the Busan Museum of Art’s “Space Lee Ufan” exhibition, the museum said that the number of visits per day increased fourfold. Before, it had only some 30 to 50 visitors each day but increased to up to 210 people.
Cheong Jong-hyo, the chief curator of the museum, revealed in a Facebook post that he had met with the singer. He complimented RM’s extensive knowledge about Korean contemporary art, even citing examples of the Mono-ha art movement led by Japanese and Korean artists in the late 1960s, and dansaekhwa.
Since then, RM has visited the Busan Museum of Art on a few more occasions — unprecedented for a celebrity, an insider for the museum told the Korea JoongAng Daily.
“His latest visit was during the Seollal holidays [Jan. 31 to Feb. 2 this year], and he saw our exhibit on Christian Boltanski,” she said. Boltanski (1944-2021) was a French artist.
“Whenever he drops by, we get more visitors and more attention on social media, getting comments from people saying they want to visit,” the insider continued. “But, from what I know, RM is the only celebrity who’s frequently come to our museum. Since we’re far from Seoul, we don’t get many celebrities, but RM has been very loyal. We’re grateful that whenever RM visits, more people become more interested in art.”
“The fact that he is willing to travel distances to see many different artworks just shows how passionate he is about art,” PKM Gallery’s director Park added.
RM made a generous donation to the MMCA for his 26th birthday in September 2020, which also aided in bringing more attention to art. The MMCA said through a press release that he donated 100 million won ($81,000) to the MMCA, asking that the money be used to fund the publishing of more art books.
At the time, the MMCA said that it would reissue eight art books that had since gone out of print. Around 4,000 books were then distributed to some 400 locations, including public libraries and schools on islands or in mountainous areas that have fewer opportunities to visit art museums.
A set of these republished art books, including those on artists like Kim Whanki and Lee Jung-seob (1916-1956), made their way to the Art Library of Uijeongbu in Gyeonggi, also visited by RM in January this year. The public library is filled with thousands of art books published by major art museums like the MMCA and SeMA, and also includes rare books.
After fans learned that RM’s donated book collection landed on the shelves, the library said there has been a surge of people visiting the library and asking where they were. On Naver and YouTube, fans posted photographs and videos of RM’s handwritten note and his Instagram picture of him reading in the library, both framed on the library’s bookshelf. Currently, RM’s books are in the donated books section.
“Apart from everything else, it’s something to be thankful for that RM is particularly interested in art,” SeMA’s curator Han said. “When I was little, I remember seeing Kwon’s ‘Bust ‘Z’’  sculpture in textbooks at school, but the younger generation these days probably don’t know as much about Kwon and his artworks. But now, RM’s leading people to notice and look into art once more.”
BY SHIN MIN-HEE, MOON SO-YOUNG [firstname.lastname@example.org]