Becoming a community of culture starts Saturday at LACMA

September 26, 2014
"Treasures From Korea: Arts and Culture of the Joseon Dynasty, 1392-1910" at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. (The Korea Times file)

“Treasures From Korea: Arts and Culture of the Joseon Dynasty, 1392-1910″ at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. (The Korea Times file)

By Chung Sookee
Arts and Culture Editor

The Korean exhibition at LACMA, showcasing artwork from the 518-year Joseon dynasty, is coming to an end on Sept. 28.

I visited frequently because I liked it no matter how many times I saw it, and the time I lingered in front of the art increased each time I went. I marveled at how the simple lines illustrated the elegance and modernity of Joseon art and soaked it in as much as I could because I may never get to see these treasures again.

But now that the celebration is ending, my worries have come back. When the treasures from Korea leave, what will become of the Korean art wing? Will LACMA’s existing Korean art fill their place? Will they convert it to a half-Chinese art gallery again? Or someday will all the Korean art be cleared out to make way for a Chinese art exhibition?

It may be a bit of a stretch, but I often thought of LACMA’s Korean art wing as “ours.” But because we couldn’t protect our own home, others forced their way in and began living in the opposite room.

Allow me to summarize for those who do not know what I’m talking about. In 1999, LACMA opened its first Korean art gallery. Although it was small at first, by 2009 it had expanded to its current location in the Hammer Building. The collection prided itself on being the best Korean art gallery outside of Korea.

The Korea Times collected $500,000 from the Korean American community to support a remodeling effort for the gallery.

The opening ceremony was a much-celebrated affair attended by Culture Minister Yoo In-chon and Choi Kwang-sik, then the director of the National Museum of Korea. The “Gilt-bronze Maitreya in Meditation,” Korea’s national treasure No. 78 and its most popular, was present at the opening ceremony; former Cultural Heritage Administration Director Yoo Hong-jun gave a lecture; Zen monk Paul Muenzen held a farewell ceremony when the treasure left the museum.

But what happened afterward? In two years, the sign reading “Korean Art Galleries” was taken down. The wing was halved as Chinese art came in, and the new sign read, “Chinese Art – Korean Art.”

Even as The Korea Times reported what was happening, the reaction from the Korean American community was nonexistent. No one — not the Korean American Federation, not the Korean Consulate General, not the Korean Cultural Center — said a word, and not a single Korean seemed to care.

Some criticize the Chinese-Korean wing as biased, especially after Kim Hyun-jung, the Korean art curator, left LACMA and Stephen Little, a Chinese art specialist was named department head. There was no Korean art curator for thee years.

But the primary issue here was the Koreans’ indifference. If we visited and showed interest and engaged more often, the Korean art gallery would not have been reduced even if a Chinese art specialist, was the department head or even the director.

The majority of Koreans do not go near the Korean gallery even when they visit LACMA, preferring to look at other exhibitions. It’s not uncommon for me to feel embarrassed to look at security staff inside the Korean gallery because of its inactivity and emptiness.

What museum would want to expand that kind of gallery? It’s completely reasonable to close the doors on a place that doesn’t draw enough, and to replace it with a bigger attraction.

“In Houston, the Koreans are gathering together to passionately support a Korean art gallery. The same thing is happening in Philadelphia. I hope here, too, a group forms to support LACMA’s Korea gallery. I feel LACMA would also give more attention to its Korean collection if more Koreans visit and show interest,” said Kim Young-na, director of the National Museum of Korea, interviewed before the opening of the “Treasures of Korea” exhibit.

Isn’t it strange? Los Angeles has the largest number of Koreans and the largest Korean art gallery outside of Korea, and yet it has no support group.

Are we a people of culture? Frankly speaking, I don’t think we are. Aside from LACMA, even on lists of sponsors and board members of art institutions like the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Getty, the Hammer, the Broad, the L.A. Phil and the L.A. Opera, you cannot find, among hundreds of people, a single Korean last name. I have yet to see Korean banks or businesses step up as sponsors to any cultural event.

In our 100-year immigration history, Koreans have yet to build a museum, and I believe it’s about time for us to become a community of culture. Technologically advanced Korea and Hallyu Korea are good, but the way to solidify our roots and make our presence known is through history and tradition.

For now, let’s set our sights on protecting what’s in front of us — the Korean art gallery. In politics, votes are power. In museums, attendance is power. I hope to see our power tomorrow at LACMA’s Korea Day.

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