Ulsan is known to many South Koreans as the city of the Hyundai Group: In the 1970s, the industrial group transformed a tranquil fishing port in the south-east of the country into a gigantic company city. However, despite its 1.2 million residents and high wages, Ulsan never developed a major cultural scene — in fact, it didn’t even have a municipal art museum.
All that changes with the arrival of the Ulsan Museum of Art, inaugurated in January 2022. It is the first municipal museum in Korea to build a collection with a special focus on media arts, going beyond traditional formats and genres. The director, Suh Jin-suk, will have funds to acquire a coherent collection; Most public museums in South Korea are constrained by complex purchasing rules, resulting in “few art museums in Korea with strong character collections,” he says as we speak.
More important than an isolated opening, Ulsan marks the beginning of a period of massive growth in art museums across South Korea. Abundant liquidity has kept the domestic art market booming for most of the last decade, and major international galleries and art fairs have made their claims in the country. (The first Frieze Seoul is in September.) In the wake of K-pop and Korean Wave in general, the country is trying to figure out if K-Art can be the next big global hit.
The country is lagging: Unesco data from 2020 showed that Korea had 21 museums per million people, compared to 45 in Japan and 101 in the US. Support for promoting cultural infrastructure comes straight from the top: In 2022, the Korean Ministry of Culture secured an unprecedented 7 trillion Korean won ($5.6 billion) for its annual budget. Ki Hye-kyung, director of the Busan Museum of Art, says there has been a mismatch between Korea’s wealth and its cultural infrastructure: “We should see the changes that are taking place now as a kind of catch-up to other advanced countries.”
“The importance of art in Korean society is undeniably increasing, be it in the commercial or public sphere,” says Suh. “Regional governments are rushing to set up cultural foundations and companies are planning to open art museums.”
Earlier this year, the Seoul Museum of Art announced plans to open three more branches across the city by 2024. The National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, which now operates four locations in Seoul and Cheongju, announced it will open a fifth in Daejeon – a hub city known for its transportation and R&D facilities – by 2026.
In Daegu, a city 30 minutes by train from Ulsan, the Kansong Art Museum is slated to open in 2023 to house the Kansong Collection, a private collection of artworks and treasures created by a wealthy Korean businessman during the Japanese Colonial Period 1910-45 . Southwest Gwangju, which has hosted an arts biennale since 1995, has just launched the Gwangju Media Art Platform as an additional venue for its municipal art museum. And Incheon, the country’s third-largest city, will soon begin construction of a museum park for a new city art museum, as well as an expanded history museum and commercial gallery buildings. All are scheduled to open in late 2025.
There were also random surprises. Late Samsung Chairman Lee Kun-hee’s private collection, which includes more than 23,000 works of art, was donated to South Korea’s national museums in 2021 in hopes it could be accepted in kind towards an $11 billion inheritance tax bill. The collection is currently on display at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, but there isn’t enough space for storage and permanent display, so it’s also getting its own space.
Ki says this sudden museum craze is a result of government officials finally understanding the importance of cultural infrastructure. Busan, Korea’s second largest city and a major port, will increase its spending on arts and culture to 3 percent of its total budget by 2030. “Officials have now realized that cultural development is the next big thing for Korea to become a more advanced country,” says Ki.
But it’s also a response to the slowdown in economic activity and the cities’ diminished attractiveness — Ulsan’s population has shrunk, and local leaders believe a museum will attract young people. The heavy industry that fueled South Korea’s economic miracle after the Korean War (1950-53) has long since stopped driving the economy; Museums, it is hoped, will encourage both local and overseas visitors to buy. While opening a museum cannot solve structural economic problems, it certainly serves to reduce the long-standing imbalance in cultural infrastructure between Seoul and the rest of the country.
But speed doesn’t necessarily equal quality. The “build now, fill later” strategy typical of the country’s rapid economic growth in the last century does not work for cultural institutions. The Asia Culture Center in Gwangju, which opened in 2015, has struggled to fill its space with consistently high-quality art and programming.
The accelerated development and responsive adaptation of K-Pop could be an instructive example for museums. Suh says, “Koreans are known for their love of speed. We’re so fast sometimes. But in the past we often lacked details. But now we are fast, adaptable and creative.”
Korea’s nationwide investment in arts and culture is unusual as most countries grapple with the impact of the pandemic. In fact, the new museum in Ulsan opened its doors to the public during a Covid-19 wave. But with the gradual decline of Korea’s industrial base and the need to develop into an advanced country, building infrastructure is more important than ever. The question is whether it can be sped up — or whether all these new museums are overkill.