Interviews

The New Director of South Korea’s National Modern Art Museum Responds to His Critics

Bartomeu Marí standing outside Korea's National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (photo TK)
Bartomeu Marí standing outside Korea’s National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (photo by Myung Yi Shik)

On Monday Bartomeu Marí, the former head of the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA), began his new job as head of South Korea’s National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA), marking the first time the museum has had an official director in over a year. He begins his term, however, with a muddied slate: the local arts community, concerned about his involvement with issues of censorship at MACBA over an explicit sculpture, protested his nomination with a petition that received support from hundreds, including well known South Korean artists and curators. Most recently, the leading group, Petition 4 Art, sent the Ministry of Culture a letter demanding policy reform and a public declaration of ethics, expressing concerns about the broader problem of government censorship at South Korea’s cultural institutions.

In light of these events, Hyperallergic interviewed Marí shortly after he assumed his position. He declined to comment on current policies he would improve, on accusations against the museum of bending under government pressures, and on the wider context of government censorship of local artists. However, he discussed his plans for MMCA, issues of institutional transparency and external pressures, and the repercussions of the MACBA incident.

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Claire Voon: As the new director of MMCA, what are some of your initial goals as well as visions for the museum? What kind of museum do you hope it will grow into under your directorship?

Bartomeu MaríWe will focus on all aspects of the program, from the most historical exhibitions to artist commissions and activities that enhance and diversify the ways the museum will work with artists. I will implement a program that results from local, regional, and international partnerships to bring together historical research, engagement with the present, and a prospective, experimental attitude toward the future.

We want to do this in intense complicity with the Korean artists and creative and critical voices within contemporary culture. We will also contribute to re-elaborating the links between the Korean-specific modern and contemporary narratives and the international landscapes of discourse. I believe in plural internationalisms, against a unifying “globalism.”

CV: What do you think is the role of the museum, and what are the responsibilities of MMCA, a public and local cultural institution?

BM: The museum is similar to any other national museum, where culture still is led by public initiatives. MMCA is the most important public institution in Korea dedicated to collecting, researching, and exhibiting modern and contemporary art, and one of the most important in Asia. We want to make it one of the most relevant in the world.

I would like to see more of its potential as a producer, as an educator and as a forum — like the public square we idealize in the West. 

CV: You’re the first foreigner to lead a public cultural institution in South Korea. How do you see your particular status informing how you will guide the museum?

BM: Being a foreigner is the natural condition of many, today. It is a great advantage if we consider that I have a great team of local colleagues and a very rich intellectual and creative scene around the museum.

I have been involved with art institutions of different kinds for more than 25 years, and I am a good witness of the many changes that the art system has lived through. I wish to contribute with excellence to this moment of the Korean art.

CV: MMCA is an institution of Korean contemporary art but is also a global museum. How will it grow in both these directions without undermining its regional identity? What kinds of exhibitions and programs do you foresee the museum hosting?

BM: I want to help to place Korean voices (artists, critics, researchers) into the larger, international, or global, environment. What is the Asian avant-garde? How can we describe Korean Modernism? How does one explain the avant-garde genealogy of the contemporary? I am passionate about the tensions that exist between the historical — the past we cannot change — and the imagination of the future we cannot predict.

I would like to diversify the typology of exhibitions because the quality of the spaces available are very diverse as well. I will work with in-house talent, guest curators, and researchers.

CV: The South Korean art community has vocalized concerns about external pressures on institutional policy, specifically regarding issues of censorship. Many have alleged that MMCA’s administrators and curators frequently commit censorship and self-censorship. What commitment do you have to the museum as an institution dedicated to the integrity and autonomy of art? What is the relationship between MMCA and the government?

BM: The Korean artists will have in MMCA their greatest institutional ally, an accomplice, a commissioner, and a friend. I will also be that — and I will act with a very critical and generous spirit. I am against any sort of censorship and stand for freedom of expression. I cannot work without freedom, and I will always condemn its absence.

The work of curators, artists, and institutions should be transparent, honest, and collegial, in Korea and in any other place in the world. I am convinced that these principles are understood and shared here. MMCA is part of the Ministry of Culture, as are public museums in other places of the world that still believe culture must be accessible to all.

CV: The incident at MACBA happened months ago, but you must understand how your past actions may cause concern about your management in this new position. What might you say to reassure those who fear a repeat incident in South Korea, where the line between culture and politics is often hazy?

BM: The very painful experience that I lived in Barcelona is a lesson to avoid repeating mistakes like that. Look at my more than 25 years of programming exhibitions, writing texts, and being active within different communities and contexts in my background. Is it not enough to have acknowledged a mistake and apologized? Honestly, I don’t understand the spirit of personal revenge against me that has dominated the media coverage of these events, especially considering that the division between executioners and victims in this case is inadequate and the reality is much more complex than what appeared in the media … [there is] a shared responsibility.

CV: Local artists, curators, and arts educators are demanding institutional reform now that MMCA finally has an official director. Do you intend to issue a public declaration of ethics, as they have requested, for the museum to abide by as it moves forward under your leadership? Do you have plans to at least reexamine some of the museum’s policies?

BM: Institutional reform and a declaration of ethics are separate things. I stated publicly, verbally, and in writing that I am against any sort of censorship and that I will always defend and promote freedom of expression: this is my declaration. I have the mandate to establish and implement the museum’s policies with the support of the Ministry. MMCA has started transformations that should enhance its possibilities and scope.

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