From 1990 to the present, the collections acquired by the MMCA have reflected the social trends of the times. By looking back at the history of the MMCA’s collections, we can see the identity of the museum and the history it hopes to write in the future.
From 1990 to the present, the collections acquired by the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea (MMCA), have reflected the social trends of the time. By looking back at the history of the MMCA’s collections, we can see the museum’s identity and the history it hopes to write in the future.
Today, the world’s leading museums are working to ensure that diverse voices are represented not only in their collections but also in their organizational structures, programs and other aspects of their operations.
The Guggenheim Foundation announced plans in 2020 to expand the scope of its collection, which had previously focused on the United States and Europe, to include Southeast Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and North America. Additionally, they announced plans to embrace “Black people, Indigenous people and people of color” (BIPOC) within the museum in 2020.
When the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) reopened in October 2019, it made a concerted effort to highlight works by artists who have traditionally been marginalized in art history. This included artists from underrepresented countries, women artists, black artists and LGBTQ artists. Many other museums have similar collection policies.
As the MMCA is Korea’s leading art museum, it is necessary to critically examine whether its collection is inclusive of works by artists who have been marginalized in Korean modern and contemporary art history. These efforts need to take place at the MMCA in order for Korean contemporary art to receive renewed recognition within the global art context.
From 1991 to 2000
In the 1990s, the international community witnessed the end of the Cold War as communist countries collapsed. As a result, Chinese contemporary artists fled to Western countries to escape government repression, and their work appeared on the international art scene. Above all, with the revolutionary advancement of technology, the art world has begun to evolve in a different landscape, marked by art forms such as media art that rely on technology and the emergence of various online platforms.
The 1990s saw major changes in South Korean society, and these changes had a profound impact on the Korean art world. During this time, the Korean art scene began to internationalize and diversify.
In the late 1980s, as the art market became excessively overheated, the government introduced measures to curb excessive consumption and speculation, leading to tax investigations of galleries. As a result, in the 1990s, the art market experienced a significant contraction, prompting Korean galleries to turn their focus to the overseas market.
In addition, the emergence of art fairs and auction markets in Korea diversified the customer base. As art collecting, which was once exclusive to the affluent class, became popular, it served as an opportunity for young artists to receive attention. In 1989, South Korea fully liberalized overseas travel, making it easier for its citizens to engage with foreign cultures. Moreover, as import regulations for the protection of domestic industries were gradually abolished and the country moved toward an open economy, foreign art companies were able to establish branches in Korea.
In 1993, art exhibitions were held in conjunction with the Daejeon Expo, a three-month international exposition, and the Whitney Biennial traveled to Seoul, introducing global art to the Korean art scene. Additionally, in 1995, the Korean Pavilion at the Venice Biennale was inaugurated.
During this time, the MMCA aimed to redefine its status by securing outstanding artworks domestically and internationally, as well as positioning itself as a cultural space that everyone could enjoy. Lim Young-Bang, who served as the director at that time, emphasized a collection policy focusing on “representative works by senior and deceased artists,” “award-winning works from major domestic competitions,” and “key works by foreign artists who have made significant contributions to the global art scene” in terms of artwork acquisition.
During the 1990s, the MMCA focused more on raising the quality of artworks and reflecting the trends of the international art scene in its collection rather than simply increasing the number of artworks. During this period, the total number of collected artworks reached 1,050, a 38% increase compared to the 1980s.
During this period, the MMCA collected artworks from various genres, including painting, installation, sculpture and video. Notably, works by young artists of the time, such as Nak-beom Koh, Choi Jeong Hwa, Jheon SooCheon, Kim Kulim and An Pilyeon, were acquired. Works by Cody Choi, who had experience on the international art stage, and Yun Suknam, known as a feminist artist, were also collected. Additionally, in 1995, in conjunction with The 15 Years of Korean Minjoong Arts: 1980–1994 exhibition at MMCA, works by Minjung artists like Lim Oksang were collected during this period.
From 2001 to 2010
In the 2000s, as cultural pluralism took hold in the international art world, artists from various countries, including China, India, Brazil, the Middle East, Africa and Russia, began to have a prominent presence on the global art stage. Particularly, the art market in China experienced significant growth. In 2015, China recorded the third-largest sales in the art market, following the United States and the United Kingdom. The growth of the Chinese art market also served as a catalyst for the growth of the East Asian art market.
After the 1997 financial crisis and a change in political power in South Korea, the landscape of the Korean art scene underwent significant changes. Korean contemporary art began to be discussed within the context of globalization, and institutional frameworks such as biennials, art museums and alternative spaces began to be established in the late 1990s.
The internationalization of the Korean art scene since the late 1990s has led to an increasing number of artists going abroad. During this period, artists such as Lee Bul, Do Ho Suh and Kimsooja began to be recognized by the international art world, while artists such as Hong Kyoungtack, Chun Kwang Young and Kim Dong Yoo began to sell their works at international art fairs and auctions.
Since the 1990s, there has been a growing awareness that diversity and individual values should be respected, leading to an increase in artworks that reveal personal everyday experiences in the 2000s. Additionally, there has been a rise in artworks that incorporate popular culture imagery from cities, television, movies, fashion and more. Furthermore, interdisciplinary arts that transcend genres, such as visual arts, dance, theater, music and film, have flourished.
In the 2000s, the MMCA focused on three directions for its acquisitions: “Korean Modern Art,” “Korean Contemporary Art,” and “International Contemporary Art.” The budget for acquisitions increased significantly over the years, from an average of 18 million KRW in the 1970s to 300 million KRW in the 1980s and reaching around 5 billion KRW after the 2000s. The number of acquired artworks during this period totaled 2,415, representing a 57% increase compared to the 1990s.
Looking at the artworks collected during that time, there was a slowdown in collecting works by established and mid-career artists but a significant increase in the acquisition of artworks by artists born in the 1950s. The collection trend became distinct in favor of figurative art, realism and Minjung art tendencies. Works by female artists and artists who participated in biennials or engaged with the international art scene, such as Do Ho Suh, Kimsooja, Inkyum Kim and Lee Bul, were acquired. Artists born in the 1960s and 1970s, who showcased new forms of art, including photography, video, media and installation, were also included.
In terms of international works, the collection featured works by accomplished artists representing the trends in Western contemporary art history, including abstract painting, minimalism, conceptual art, feminist art, free imagination, expressionism, neo-conceptualism and photography art.
From 2011 to 2020
After the adoption of the “Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions” at the 2005 UNESCO General Conference, many art museums around the world began making efforts to protect and promote diversity. Museums strive to address racial, regional, gender and religious disparities within their institutions. Alongside these efforts, the phenomenon of globalization continues, introducing artists from various countries, such as Africa, Eastern Europe, Asia and Latin America, to the international art scene.
According to the research paper by Kim Dooiee and Park Hyesung titled “Diversity of the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea: Artist and Media Diversity in the Exhibitions and the Collections” (2022), South Korea ratified the Convention on Cultural Diversity in 2010, and since then, many art museums have begun to increase “artist diversity” and “medium diversity.” However, unlike other multicultural countries, South Korea, as a predominantly homogeneous society, tends to prioritize the protection and preservation of Korean culture as a minority culture rather than emphasizing the coexistence of diverse cultures. This tendency is evident even within the collections of the MMCA.
Since 2010, the MMCA has announced plans to collect works by world-renowned artists in preparation for the opening of the Seoul branch in 2013 and set a goal to collect 10,000 artworks by 2015.
Furthermore, MMCA’s long-term strategic plans were established, focusing on academic research in Korean contemporary art, establishing an artwork conservation system and enhancing the utilization of the museum’s collection, and from 2012 to 2017, a strategic approach was implemented to sequentially acquire works by artists from Asian countries such as Japan, China, India, Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia.
However, over 90% of the works acquired during this period were by Korean artists. It was found that although the proportion of foreign artists increased in 2017, the artworks by artists from foreign countries did not exceed 2% of the total.
Gender diversity remained unresolved as well. Among the collected artworks, male artists accounted for 74.2% of the total. In the older age group, the gender gap was even more significant, with male artists outnumbering female artists by 10 times (1920–1934) and over 35 times (before 1919).
The MMCA’s collection has reflected the trends of society, but it has recently failed to reflect diversity in its collection, which is an important topic in the contemporary art world.
Korea stands apart with its unique social background, distinct from that of the United States and European countries, and it has a very different history of immigration than these countries. Yet Korean society flourishes with a myriad of cultures.
More efforts should be made to achieve proportional representation of artworks by LGBTQ artists, as well as women artists, who have been underrepresented in Korean art history. In addition, there is a growing number of migrants in Korea, including foreign workers, marriage migrants, North Korean defectors, naturalized citizens and international students. The museum will need to look at whether its collections reflect the perspectives and voices of these diverse people who may be part of the Korean art scene.