Posted : 2013-11-29 16:44
Updated : 2013-11-29 16:44

New museum, old rift

Members of the Korean Fine Arts Association (KFAA) and other art groups protest in front of the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) Seoul on Wednesday, calling for MMCA director Chung Hyung-min to resign. / Yonhap

Artists accuse MMCA as elitist, demand director's resignation

By Kwon Mee-yoo

The opening of the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) Seoul, which aims to be to the city what the Tate Modern is to London, was supposed to be a cause of celebration. Weeks into its existence, it has instead been a lightning rod sparking deep-rooted conflicts within the art community.

Less than a month after the massive, 243 billion won (about $230 million) institution opened its doors near Gyeongbok Palace in central Seoul, the museum is already facing questions about its identity, accused by a growing number of artists as stuffy and elitist. This has left MMCA director Chung Hyung-min fighting calls to resign.

The core of the complaints is that the museum is highlighting the works of artists who have graduated from prestigious Seoul National University (SNU), at the expense of others. More than 300 artists, representing the Korean Fine Arts Association (KFAA) and other lobby groups, protested in front of the museum on Wednesday, accusing the museum of discriminating against artists who aren't from elite art schools.

The exhibit that touched off the controversy was "Zeitgeist Korea," one of the museum's five inaugural exhibitions, featuring 59 creations from Korean contemporary artists. KFAA argues that the exhibition, organized by SNU professor Jung Young-mok, resembles an SNU alumni program as 32 of the 39 artists participating are products of that school.

Chung, the MMCA director, is a SNU professor. The Seoul museum's chief curators Choi Eun-ju and Jang Yop are SNU graduates.

"MMCA Seoul is a state institution built by tax payers. It's not an art museum belonging to a certain school. The exhibition ignores the diversity of the Korean art scene," said Cho Kang-hoon, chairman of the KFAA, which has more than 35,000 members.

"There should be a more diverse mix of artists participating in the museum's operating committee. Its structure should be open so that outsiders can actively participate and convey their opinions."

Cho and other art community leaders met with Chung later in the day to share their opinions about the exhibition. As of Friday, MMCA Seoul didn't have an official response to the accusations of nepotism.

MMCA Seoul complements the main MMCA institution in Gwacheon, Gyeonggi Province. MMCA Seoul's main hall is dedicated to cutting-edge Korean and international art while Seokjojeon expects to be devoted to early modern work. The Gwacheon museum highlights late-20th century works. The MMCA will open another institution in the mid-west city of Cheongju in 2015.

It is not the first time the MMCA is dealing with accusations of favoring artists linked to SNU. During the National Assembly's audit of the institution earlier this year, lawmakers pointed out that SNU graduates were sweeping key positions under Chung's watch. The museum defended itself by claiming that its personnel decisions aren't dictated by Chung and also reflects the opinions of a panel of external experts.

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