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Dreadful flames swallowed Namdaemun, Korea’s 600-year-old National Treasure No. 1, on Feb. 10, breaking the hearts of Koreans. As if in mourning over the loss of Korea’s most artistic cultural asset, the Korean art industry itself was at a loss all year long.
Already strained by various scandals, the industry suffered from the global economic crisis and nearly hit rock bottom. It never managed to bounce back, but instead fell deeper into a slump, weighed down by an unhelpful government.
The year began with a wobbly start as Shin Jeong-ah, the former art professor and curator who forged her academic credentials and embezzled gallery money, was sentenced to a year and six months in prison in April.
A number of art forgery scandals followed, including the one over Park Soo-keun’s painting “A Wash Place.” It was sold for a record 4.52 billion won ($3.4 million) last May but was soon entangled in forgery controversies.
It went through numerous evaluations, but it is still not certain whether it is authentic or not. It is currently being reinspected by the Seoul National University and it is apparent that the controversy will continue, since the person in charge at the university was recently disciplined.
Other pieces by famous artists such as Kwon Ok-yeon and Do Sang-bok were put up at auction but were exposed as fake by the artists themselves or their surviving family. The auctions were canceled at the last minute.
Making it harder for the art industry to find tranquility after these scandals quieted down were vacancies of the top of the major art galleries and art councils.
Hong Ra-hee, the former head of the Samsung Museum of Art, Leeum and who was selected as the most powerful figure in Korean art industry, announced that she would no longer participate in any of Leeum’s business when she resigned earlier this year.
Her resignation was the result of the accusation that she used some of Samsung’s slush funds to supplement her collection of paintings. Roy Lichtenstein’s painting, “Happy Tears,” was at the center of the controversy.
Since her resignation, art fans have been unable to see the museum’s high-quality special exhibitions. With Korea’s top private gallery silent, the art industry is busy searching for another target buyer.
Kim Yun-su, the former director of the National Museum of Contemporary Arts, was dismissed in November, accused of buying Marcel Duchamp’s installation art “La Boite en Valise” for an inappropriately high 600 million won without going through proper purchasing procedures.
Kim Jeong-heon, former chairman of the Arts Council Korea, was also released from the office in December for a similar reason, the misuse of the council’s budget. He was blamed for an investment loss of 5.4 billion won, which allegedly came in the form of regulations violations.
However, the culture minister Yu In-chon had announced earlier this year that it was only natural for both Kims to step down, mentioning that all officials appointed under the left-leaning Roh Moo-hyun administration should quit their posts.
The art industry seems to be one of the industries most affected by the world economic crisis, especially compared to last year, the industry’s heyday. Gallery insiders say with a big sigh that this year was the worst in sales ever.
The art auction market, which was worth over 192.6 billion won last year, dropped over 40 percent, to 114.9 billion won. More than 80 percent of the bid was successful last year but this year, only 50 percent managed to sell. New auction companies such as D auction and Open auction are delaying the opening of their businesses.
It is the same situation with biennales and art fairs. Many opened this year, including Gwangju Biennale, Busan Biennale, Daegu Photo Biennale and Korea International Art Fair.
In size and quality, they left nothing to be desired. Most of them succeeded in attracting their most visitors ever, as 360 thousand visited Gwangju and 160 visited Busan during the period.
KIAF was bigger than last year, with about 1,500 artists from 20 countries presenting approximately 6,000 works. Gwangju Biennale succeeded in overcoming the void left by Shin Jeong-ah’s removal with a unique theme of “no theme at all,” under the name “Annual Report,” led by Okwui Enwezor, the art director.
The fairs, however, did not result in good sales. More than 61 thousand visitors entered the KIAF this year, but the sales dropped from 17.5 billion won last year to 14 billion won.
To make matters worse for the art industry, the bill of imposing capital gains tax on art pieces passed the plenary session of the National Assembly on Dec. 13. Starting from 2011, art pieces that cost more than 60 million won will be taxable. Works of Korean artists are excluded.
But some experts say that this is the right time to make the art market transparent and sort out its dealing system, which had regularly seen giant bubbles of overpriced artworks.
But the controversy over the bill is likely to continue next year, as art galleries and organizations, which closed down for days in November to protest the government’s movement, are still against the bill.
They worry that the real-name dealings system will make the art market shrink even more, considering how art collectors usually do not open to the public the specifics of the dealings. They also question how exactly the government will be able to estimate the prices of each art piece.
A light of hope does shine on the troubled art industry, though. Some auction companies and art galleries are paving their way into the world market, trying to survive through the depression.
Seoul Auction and K auction, the top two auction companies in Korea advanced into Hong Kong and Macao this year and are putting up a good fight. Seoul Auction sold Lichtenstein’s “Still Life with Stretcher, Mirror, Bowl of Fruit” at 9.3 billion won in Hong Kong.
Arario Gallery, Gallery Hyundai, and PKM gallery opened in China, Arario Gallery and Gana Art Gallery in New York, and Pyo Gallery in Los Angeles in the United States.
By Park Min-young