More than just a display house May 07 2013
More than just a display house

The Seoul Museum is becoming a hot spot for art lovers with its blend of classic and innovative exhibitions. / Courtesy of Seoul Museum

Seoul Museum director Yi Joo-heon

Seoul Museum aims at providing a space for art and mind

Seoul Museum, which was established last year, is quickly becoming a go-to-place for art aficionados and tourists. Nestled at the foot of Mt. Inwang, the central Seoul museum combines state-of-the-art facilities with a beautiful, Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910) era ''hanok’’ (Korean traditional house). It aims to be a one-stop destination for classic and contemporary art and also a lifestyle hub.

Seoul Museum director Yi Joo-heon, an art critic and author of more than 30 books, is guiding the museum’s evolution.

Yi, who attended one of the nation’s top art schools, Hongik University, is a painter with experience in arts journalism at vernacular papers such as Dong-A Ilbo and Hankyoreh. After leaving journalism, he worked as the director of Hakgojae Gallery from 1995 to 2004, during which time he wrote several books on fine art.

This background made him an ideal candidate for Ahn Byung-gwang, CEO of Union Pharmacy and owner of the museum, who was looking for a director with a deep understanding of art, but also the sense to make information more understandable to the general public.

“I first turned down the offer after I quit working for art institutions a decade ago, but I was moved by the goodwill behind the museum and its location,” Yi said in an interview with The Korea Times.

''While I definitely want this museum to create a profit, I also want it to maintain a clear identity. A museum is not an institution that can be founded and operated by a philanthropist. It’s my goal to make the museum stand on its own feet.’’

One of the museum’s assets is ''Seokpajeong,’’ formerly the residence of Prince Regent Daewon-gun, father of 26th king, Gojong. In the museum’s recent ''Pine Tree: Looking Ahead 1,000 Years,’’ Yi deftly used the background of Seokpajeong to feature Moon Bong-sun’s pine tree paintings influenced by classic, Joseon styles.

Yi is captivated by the charm of the museum, where modernity and tradition coexist.

''There are few places in Seoul where you can see such breathtaking mountain views right next to the bustling cityscape. It is a place of cultural renaissance and conceptual, elite exhibitions do not fit well with Seoul Museum,’’ Yi said.

''When I saw this place, I thought it is going to be a place for relaxation.’’

The museum’s inaugural exhibit, ''Dung-seob, Go to Renaissance!’’ shed new light on the most precious pieces of Korean modern art, including Lee Jung-seob’s ''Bull.’’ The ''Love Actually’’ exhibit straightforwardly reflected Yi’s intention to reach the masses, with the museum's six curators pairing famous artworks with quotes from famous romantic movies.

At the end of the exhibit, there is a “Kiss Zone” with Salvador Dali’s “Mae West Lips Sofa.” The idea came from Yi’s memory of seeing a couple kissing in front of Gustav Klimt’s “Kiss” at the Belvedere Gallery in Vienna.

''It was impressive that the couple was filled with emotion from the artwork and captured the moment with an extraordinary memory. I wanted to create similar, memorable experiences at Seoul Museum,” he explained.

Yi emphasized the importance of storytelling in designing an exhibit. ''I think history, religion, philosophy and everything can and should be made into an approachable story,’’ he said.

''The role of a curator will become more important because the viewers want to read about trends throughout history and fulfill their desire to enjoy art exhibits, not just artworks. We need a stronger role from them. Though our approach seems light and entertaining, that doesn’t mean that our exhibitions are any less intellectual than others.’’

The fourth exhibit is still under the veil, but Yi already started working on a fifth one, celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of the late Korean painter Kim Ki-chang (1913-2001) later this year.

''The highlight of the exhibit will be a series painting on Jesus' life, featuring Jesus wearing a 'gat' (Korean traditional hat made of bamboo and horsehair) and the Virgin Mary in 'hanbok’ (Korean traditional costume),’’ Yi said.

Yi believes that a museum should be financially independent. Currently, Seoul Museum’s revenue comes from admission fees, sales at the museum shop and cafe and rent from a duty free shop in the museum building, though most of the finance is sourced by museum founder Ahn, who gave 1 billion won in funding for this year.

Opened earlier this year, the duty free shop brought in a new influx of visitors to the museum. “Still the tourists coming to the duty free are more interested in Seokpajeong than the museum, but I think we will absorb them to museum visitors eventually,” he said.

For more information, visit www.seoulmuseum.org or call (02) 395-0100. The museum is a 10-minute bus ride from Gyeongbok Palace Station on subway line 3.

Quick Page Up