About 50 artists, curators, and other arts professionals in South Korea gathered over the weekend to discuss the probable appointment of Bartomeu Marí as the new director of the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (photo courtesy Petition 4 Art)

South Korea’s National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) will very soon have a new director, but the local art community is protesting the top candidate for the position, Bartomeu Marí. Their concerns stem from the Spanish museum director’s role in a censorship controversy that occurred earlier this year.

As Hyperallergic previously reported, in March Marí cancelled an exhibition on the eve of its opening at the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA), where he was the director at the time. The ensuing fiasco recently led the directors of three prominent museums to resign from the board of the International Committee for Museums and Collections of Modern Art (CIMAM), where Marí currently serves as president. In late October, Korean news reported that Marí was shortlisted for the prestigious position in Seoul along with two others — both locals — though sources noted that he “scored much higher in interviews.” The Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism (MCST) is set to make its final decision shortly, but this week, a group called Petition 4 Art launched a statement and petition against Marí’s likely appointment; as of press time, it has received over 800 signatures from artists, curators, and other cultural figures. Signatories include artists Kim Beom, Lee Bul, and Haegue Yang as well as curators Seungduk Kim to Binna Choi.

Bartomeu Mari (photo via Wikipedia)

Marí would be the first foreigner to take the helm of a public art museum in Korea, but Petition 4 Art makes clear that it is concerned only with his handling of the MACBA incident, which the group described as “very inappropriate” in an email sent to Hyperallergic.

“His attitude to ignore recent expression by resignation of three board members of CIMAM made it difficult [for us] to see his attitude as seriously responsible,” Petition 4 Art continued.

Those opposing Marí’s candidacy are especially concerned because the South Korean government has increasingly imposed “censorship and bureaucratic restrictions on artistic freedom,” as the Petition 4 Art statement puts it. The group cites allegations against Arts Council Korea (ARKO) of censoring plays; government funding cuts for this year’s Busan International Film Festival, a decision some suspect stems from the screening of a documentary critical of the Sewol passenger ferry‘s sinking; and last year’s sudden removal of South Korean artist Hong Sung-dam’s caricature of the country’s president from the Gwangju Biennale. The group also describes many cultural organizations that seem to value institutional needs over creativity and artistic freedom, claiming instances of “biased financial support and self-censorship” at an array of public art organizations — one of them being MMCA itself.

“MMCA is the biggest national contemporary art institution in South Korea, where censorship and self-censorship are frequently performed by internal bureaucrats and curators,” Petition 4 Art told Hyperallergic. “We do not want to think of Mr. Marí as an incompetent art professional, but we wonder whether he is the one who can handle properly — with a strong ethical standard for the art scene and community, especially in Korea’s current culture-political situation — not to ‘protect the institution’ only.”

When reached for comment, Marí told Hyperallergic through email that he has already exchanged messages with Petition 4 Art to share his “total engagement with defending freedom of expression, fight against censorship, and for total independence for creating and programming within the field of public culture.

“From their statement I see that they associate me with the Korean government’s interferences in the cultural life of the country, and this does not make any sense,” Marí wrote. “I find it completely unacceptable and only explicable as the product of voices that, in the last weeks, are doing a lot of work against me … I offered transparent and constant discussion with the artists that sign the petition. I have worked with artists in different contexts and projects for about 30 years, and the last I could expect in my life is to be accused of censorship.”

Petition 4 Art, however, told Hyperallergic that Marí’s messages still did not “give us any confidence” in his potential directorship at MMCA, against which it will continue to petition.

Posters announcing last weekend’s Petition 4 Art’s rally (photo courtesy Petition 4 Art)

According to Petition 4 Art’s own sources the Minister of Culture, Kim Jong-deok, may name the new director any day now, an announcement that would fill a position that has remained vacant for a year. The nomination process itself has been a point of controversy, beginning last year when MMCA’s then-director Chung Hyung-min was dismissed, and developing as reports emerged of the Culture Ministry repeatedly failing to fill the position. (Chung’s tenure as director was also fraught with controversy.) A public call in August drew applications from 22 art experts, 12 of whom were foreigners, according to Korea Herald.

While the local arts community is questioning Marí’s selection, he received an endorsement yesterday from Tate Modern director Chris Dercon, as AsiaOne reported. Dercon focused on advocating for Marí’s knowledge of Korean art — not particularly a chief concern of Petition 4 Art and its fellow signatories — although he noted that Marí was “in a difficult situation [in relation to the MACBA affair]. As a director you have to negotiate with everything. He was in between artists, and he was between curators and trustees. He had to do something because of the pressure put on by politicians through trustees.”

Dercon’s statement echoes the fears expressed by the South Korean art community of continued cultural censorship as a result of institutions bending to more powerful authorities. “If this appointment happens, this means this government’s severe disrespect to a big voice of the art community,” Petition 4 Art wrote.

The group has four demands, as outlined in its statement, for MCST, MMCA, and the museum’s new director — whether or not it is Marí — to introduce greater transparency while protecting and promoting artistic freedom in their country: 

  1.  The South Korean MCST and Bartomeu Marí, the leading candidate for the position of MMCA director, must clearly state their official positions on the erratic handling of the exhibition The Beast and the Sovereign.
  2.  The South Korean government must cease its bureaucratic cultural administration that impairs the immediacy and freedom of art, and it must immediately facilitate arenas for open discussion, including public hearings on the delayed appointment of the MMCA director and the process and standards for selecting the new director.
  1.  The South Korean government must fully expand the legitimate independence of public art organs, including the MMCA. The government must provide support, not interference.
  2. We strongly oppose all variants of censorship and surveillance that harm the autonomy of art, and we pledge multifaceted, continued efforts to recover the autonomy and independence of art.

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Claire Voon

Claire Voon is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Singapore, she grew up near Washington, D.C. and is now based in Chicago. Her work has also appeared in New York Magazine, VICE,...