“It’s my first visit to Gyeonggi Museum of Modern Art (GMoMA), and I am here for the Lee Kun-hee collection exhibition,” a visitor to the museum in Ansan city said in a review on the Naver Maps website dated July 26 under the username “Gryeoreoni.” “It makes me proud as a resident of Gyeonggi province to have such a wonderful art museum.”
The museum is hosting a special exhibition titled “Seasons, Lee Kun-hee Collection: Modern and Contemporary Korean Art” until Aug 20. The exhibition features 46 pieces from the art collection of the late Samsung Group chairman Lee Kun-hee (1942-2020) that were donated to the state in 2021 and 11 other artworks.
Pieces from the Lee Kun-hee collection are currently on exhibit at three regional museums. The “Lee Kun-hee Collection and Masters of the 20th century Korean Art” exhibition will run at Daejeon Museum of Art(DMA) in Daejeon city until Sept. 10 and “A Collector’s Invitation: the Bequest of Lee Kun-hee” at Cheongju National Museum in Cheongju city will run until Oct. 29.
For the DMA exhibition, a visitor with the username “Blue Lace Flower” wrote on the Naver Maps reviews site on July 23, “I visited a Lee Kun-hee collection exhibition at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) in Seoul last year. So, when I heard about an exhibition of the collection to be held at DMA, I thought at first, ‘I don’t need to go.’ But on my day off I found a time-slot ticket for the exhibition thanks to a cancellation. I discovered many artworks I hadn’t seen before, which were really beautiful.”
These reviews show the traveling exhibitions of the Lee Kun-hee collection around the country have had unexpected effects. Many reviewers say they visited the municipal museums in their regions for the first time to see the exhibitions. Additionally, many regional museums say they secured extra budgets from their local governments to renovate their aging infrastructure.
“We were able to replace the entire lighting, walls, and floor for the first time since the museum opened (in 2006),” Ahn Mi-hee, director of GMoMA told the Korea JoongAng Daily. “The entire exhibition space was closed for three months for these renovations. This would not have been possible in a public museum unless it was to exhibit the Lee Kun-hee collection. I am sure other municipal museums have faced similar situations.”
It was in April 2021 that the family of the late Lee donated, out of his vast art collection, 21,693 artifacts and old masters’ works to the National Museum of Korea, 1,488 pieces of modern and contemporary artworks to the MMCA and 102 artworks to five regional art museums.
Soon after, the National Museum of Korea and the MMCA each exhibited the donated works, with tickets sold out throughout the exhibition periods. In April 2022, on the first anniversary of the donation, the two museums co-organized an exhibition titled “A Collector’s Invitation” at the National Museum of Korea, with the traveling exhibitions beginning after it wrapped up in August 2022. Out of the donated collection, 150 works were selected and further divided into three sets of 50 works, so that the three traveling exhibitions could be held simultaneously at three regional museums.
“We consider the period when the National Museum of Korea and the MMCA held the exhibitions of the Lee Kun-hee collection to be the first round of the donation’ effects, and the period of the collection’s traveling exhibitions around the nation to be the second round,” said Shim Ji-eon, editor in chief of the contemporary art magazine Monthly Art, which carried a special feature titled “Lee Kun-hee collection Round 2” in its July issue.
“During the period set as Round 1, some exhibitions such as ‘A Collector’s Invitation’ received positive reviews but there was also criticism that the MMCA, encouraged by the great popularity of the shows, organized too many of them and put too much focus on them,” she continued. “In Round 2, there were more positive effects, such as the improvement of facilities and efforts to differentiate exhibitions at regional museums.”
Song Soo-jung, head of the Museum Policy and Research Department at the MMCA, also said, “The traveling exhibitions of the Lee Kun-hee collection seem to have had a positive effect of increasing each regional museum’s ability to host exhibitions, as they competed in good faith to create differentiated exhibitions with the Lee Kun-hee collection and show their regions’ identities.”
On the other hand, some experts are concerned about what will happen after the general public’s fervor for the Lee Kun-hee collection cools down. They point out that such positive effects were derived almost solely from the late Lee’s brand value.
Kim Hye-in, head of the Arts Policy Research Division at the Korea Culture and Tourism Institute, said at the roundtable for the Monthly Art’s July issue, “The fact that local governments’ budgets for regional museums were insufficient until the Lee Kun-hee collection came along and visitors came to local museums for the first time to see it, highlights the sad reality of the Korean art world.” This is thus an opportunity to devise ways to solve this reality, she added.
Meanwhile, there are still concerns about the government’s plan to build a separate museum for the Lee Kun-hee collection, which is already divided between the National Museum of Korea, the MMCA and other local museums.
According to an announcement by the Ministry of Strategy and Finance on July 20, a project to build the so-called “Lee Kun-hee Museum” to preserve and exhibit the collection in Songhyeon-dong, central Seoul, recently passed a preliminary feasibility test. According to the project plan, the Lee Kun-hee Museum will be built on a site in Songhyeon-dong, Jongno district, which is surrounded by Gyeongbok Palace, the MMCA, and the Constitutional Court until 2028. The museum building will have a gross floor area of 26,000 square meters and will cost 118.6 billion won ($89 million).
In response, art critic Jung Jun-mo told the Korea JoongAng Daily, “Why is it that the state wants to reunite the donations that the donor carefully divided between the National Museum of Korea and the MMCA? Lee’s family took into account the circumstances of the two museums’ original collections and donated artifacts and artworks that can fill the gaps in the original collections. Why does the state want to put together them in another museum and display them in this messy way?”
“I don’t know why the current administration wants to inherit the former administration’s incorrect plan of action,” he continued. “I heard that the current administration is planning to create a cultural cluster of museums and art galleries centered on the Blue House, so the Songhyeon-dong site will be closely examined as a part of this plan, and there is no need to rush to build a separate museum for the Lee Kun-hee collection.”
BY MOON SO-YOUNG [email@example.com]