Art industry recovering from bleak year

Hit hard by the global economic crisis, the Korean art industry suffered practically all year. To make things even worse, it was hit by scandals.

The biggest was probably the series of allegations that art was used in lobbying by the National Tax Service executives.

Han Sang-ryul, the former NTS chief, stepped down from his post in January in the wake of news reports that his wife may have given an expensive painting, titled "Hakdongmaeul," to the wife of his predecessor Jeon Goon-pyo in January 2007 before Han was named NTS chief. The scandal got bigger as suspicions rose that he might have also lobbied the president's elder brother to retain his post.

Han is currently in the United States, denying all accusations against him. The prosecutors have investigated all the figures related to the case to date, except for Han.

Another scandal involving NTS soon followed. An NTS official named Ahn Won-goo left his post in July after he was accused of forcing companies to buy paintings from Gaain Gallery, which his wife runs, at extremely high prices. The gallery is the same one Jeon's wife consigned to sell "Hakdongmaeul."

Public opinion is that more scandals are bound to rise, as Ahn, currently in prison, is providing information about more NTS corruption.

Meanwhile, a two-year-long dispute over the authenticity of "The Washing Place" ended in April when the court said the painting was in fact done by the late Korean painter Park Soo-keun.

The court also rejected a damages suit filed by an art auction company against a biweekly magazine that had first cast doubt the painting's authenticity, saying such suspicion was part of the role of the media that should be protected by law.

In the Korean antique art market, controversy rose about a Goryeo cheongja or blue porcelain that Gangjin-gun, South Jeolla Province, had bought in October 2007 for 1 billion won. As some complained it was too expensive while others thought it was appropriate, the controversy resulted in a re-evaluation and Gangjin-gun is taking its steps to litigation.

These incidents highlighted a need for establishing a proper valuation and assessment system in the local art industry.

Besides the scandals, several art fairs and blockbuster exhibitions this year left huge scars in the Korean art industry as only few of them were successful.

Although more people visited the events compared to last year, the total sales of most art fairs decreased about 20 to 30 percent. In case of blockbuster exhibitions, several of the companies that organized them even went bankrupt.

The figures announced by the nation's major art companies show how much the market has suffered this year.

Local auctions' total sales in the first half of the year reported about 35.9 billion won, 46 percent lower than the same period last year. Some auction companies even shut down altogether this year.

Art insiders, however, find relief in the fact that the sales in the latter half are much better than that of the same period last year.

For example, K-Auction, one of the largest auction houses in Korea, marked 18.5 billion won in sales this year, which is 40 percent lower than that of last year's 29.5 billion won.

But total sales of its two auctions in the second half was 10.1 billion won, up by 8.4 billion won from the same period last year.

"The auction market really hit bottom in the first half of this year, but is reviving little by little as it is gets near the end of the year," said Lee Sang-kyu, an official of K Auction.

For the art market to revive, the essential part would be talented artists and qualified works that lead the market. In 2009, unfortunately, not many stood out in Korea.

Many design festivals were held throughout the year, such as "Seoul Design Olympic 2009" or "Design Korea 2009," as Seoul was designated the World Design Capital for next year by the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design.

They did introduce many whimsical designs, but did not achieve their aim of making Seoul chic and many Koreans still find "design" unfamiliar. Opinions are that more efforts should be made next year.

The efforts by national museums this year, however, did bring out some good results.

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of Korean museums, some 20 national museums throughout the country held extensive events and exhibitions.

The highlight was the exhibition "Yeominhaerak," which means "to share enjoyment with people," held at the National Museum of Korea in Seoul. It featured many relics rarely shown to the public during the last 100 years.

"Mongyudowondo," a painting of paradise by Joseon dynasty artist Angyeon, was one of them. It currently belongs to Tenri University in Japan, and was borrowed for nine days during the exhibition period. An average of about 10,000 people per day visited the museum during those nine days to see the work.

The National Museum of Contemporary Art also made some historical changes, too, like the appointment of a former IT minister as new director of the National Museum of Korea on February.

Bae Soon-hoon, who was at the time vice president of Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, was also president of Daewoo Electronics for four years and had never held a job related to art.

It was controversial for such a person to get the post, which had been always dominated by high-profile art figures.

The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism said that it believed Bae's experience as a CEO would be beneficial, especially since the culture ministry plans to establish a Seoul branch of the museum in the old Defense Security Command site in central Seoul.

And now, actually under Bae's command, the project to establish the museum's Seoul branch is smoothly proceeding.

The Seoul branch, which will open in 2012, will be the museum's third branch, completing the National Museum of Contemporary Art trio along with the existing ones in Gwacheon, Gyeonggi Province and Deoksugung, central Seoul.

Many say that the art industry's long-cherished wish is finally coming true, as they have always wanted a large and high-tech museum in the heart of Seoul. Some had complained that the Gwacheon branch is too isolated to attract visitors.

The museum recently offered a preview of what kind of museum the former DSC complex in central Seoul would become through the exhibition "Beginning of New Era."

About 60 artists, ranging from veterans to rookies, showcased some 300 original and fun exhibits that made viewers ponder the limits of contemporary art.

By Park Min-young
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