Guildhall Galleries, London visit Korea with ICOM UK – British Council Travel Grant

Elizabeth Scott, Head of Guildhall Galleries and Principal Curator of Guildhall Art Gallery travelled to South Korea in March 2018 with an ICOM UK – British Council Travel Grant. This is the report from Elizabeth’ visit.

I am looking to take the Guildhall Art Gallery (GAG) in a new direction, in terms of both its exhibition programming and collecting.  The Gallery’s original remit, when it was first established in 1885, was to collect art about the capital.  I wish to focus our collecting back to London, however I would like to explore the possibility of expanding this to include the work of London artists. 

As the GAG moves into this new era, I wished to explore and learn from other art galleries with a city/regional-remit.  Whilst there are several city museums around the world there are very few city-focused art galleries/museums, rather there are galleries which have a regional focus. There are several institutions of this kind in Seoul and the city offers a varied mix of government, corporate and privately-run galleries who collect and display traditional, modern and contemporary Korean art.  I had a plethora of questions I wanted to ask, such as how they decide which artists work represents a region, what parameters and/or criteria is applied, how are their collecting policies aligned to their programming? All of which lead to the ultimate question I wanted to explore, is expanding the GAG’s collecting remit to that of London artists viable?

Total Museum of Contemporary Art, Seoul, Korea © Elizabeth Scott

All the organisations I visited were selected very specifically for the different roles they play in the Korean art and cultural sector.  I met with Hyesoo Woo, Chief Curator at Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art, where we discussed how they curate their collection of traditional and contemporary Korean art alongside western contemporary art, and particularly their bi-annual show, Art Spectrum, which exhibits work from young Korean artists. 

At Total Museum of Contemporary Art I met with Nathalie Boseul Shin, Chief Curator, where we discussed their mixed arts programme and their work in promoting Korean art with limited budgets, for instance publishing K.NOTe – English text on Korean artists. At Seoul Museum of Art (SeMA) I met with Kahyun Song, Curator at SeMA, Nam June Paik Memorial House and SeMA Bunker, and Jung Yu Jin, Curator of Collection & Research Division.  The focus of discussions was their open call to Korean artists for artworks to be displayed at the museum and ultimately to be acquired.  I also met with Kiyoung Peik, Director of Curatorial Bureau, SeMA.  Finally, I met with Diana Eunjee Kim, Director at Kukje Gallery, where we discussed the Korean art market, its collectors and the impact of the Kukje Gallery’s work regionally and internationally.  For organisations I could not arrange meetings with I visited them instead including Kumho Museum of Art and the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art as well as other museums and galleries.

Meeting at SeMA (Seoul Museum of Art) © Elizabeth Scott

In all of my discussions, one of the most interesting aspects was that each organisation had very different ways of collecting which didn’t focus necessarily on placing parameters/criteria on what they collected, but rather the focus was on how they acquired work, from SeMA’s open call to Korean artists for artworks leading to the acquisition of between 150-200 artworks a year, to Leeum’s policy, whereby artworks are collected according to the exhibition programme. 

In all the meetings we explored not only the organisations collecting remit but also their governance structures regarding acquisitions.  Some organisations were very hierarchical, and the Director would make the ultimate decision, in others a committee was formed of mostly an external panel of experts, who would then decide what enters the permanent collection.  However, in all instances, whether a council run or privately owned gallery, the focus was always to promote and acquire Korean art, even if it doesn’t bring in large audiences, such as Leeum’s Art Spectrum, as it is almost seen as a duty to collect and promote regional art. 

One of the many successes from the trip was seeing how things can be done differently when it comes to acquisitions, and to not be limited by the way things are usually done in the UK and to not shy away from celebrating London artists.  One of the challenges was setting up the meetings, whilst I tried to arrange the meetings before the trip, in some instances meetings were not confirmed until I was in Seoul, and in others the people I would meet would change either before or on the day of the meeting.

I left Seoul feeling encouraged to explore different ways of collecting, and ultimately to move ahead with the idea of collecting work by London artists.  Whereas previously I would allow myself to get bogged down in defining what is meant by ‘London artist’ I feel now that the wording of the collecting policy, whilst important, shouldn’t take precedence over thinking about the method of collecting – both are equally significant. 

Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art, Seoul, Korea © Elizabeth Scott

It’s interesting that most collecting policy’s in the UK focus on the subjects to be actively collected (or not), and usually feature several pages on methods of disposal and yet methods of acquisition are rarely if at all discussed, beyond what organisations won’t collect.  The practice in Seoul is different and having honest conversations with the curators about my worries, and surprise at some of their methods, has helped me to reflect on GAG’s acquisitions procedure, and the practice in the UK, which I can now see needs shaking up and to be challenged.  The organisations I visited have a very pro-active way of collecting works, and whilst GAG won’t be collecting 150-200 works a year, I think GAG’s collection and its visitors will benefit from this new spirit of collecting.

As I already mentioned, I found it difficult arranging some of my meetings before I left for Seoul, on several occasions email addresses I received were incorrect because the person had moved or I just wasn’t getting a response.  My advice is not to worry if you haven’t got all of your meetings lined up and be prepared to change your plans at short notice.  Therefore keep your schedule fairly loose in order to accommodate any last minute changes.  If/when you don’t get a response, keep trying and use any contacts you have – I found it immensely helpful getting in touch with the British Council in Seoul who were able to provide email contacts and introduce me to senior members of staff at SeMA, and Dana McAndrew who gave me her contacts in South Korea.  I also found contacting organisations via their Facebook and Twitter accounts worked well.  Of course, you may not get a response at all, as I experienced with Kumho Museum, despite many attempts and different approaches, therefore have a few other organisations in mind you can approach which match your area of interest/project.

Following my visit I have two objectives: the first is to address how we collect at GAG and the second is to revise our collecting policy.  My immediate next steps are to hold an ideas workshop with the GAG team to explore different ways of collecting.  The aim is for a long-term plan that is sustainable and within our resources and sets our ambitions for finding new and engaging ways to connect to our immediate communities and range of visitors through our wonderful collections.  I will redraft our current collecting policy, expanding it to include collecting the work of London artists, which, following my visit, I am confident will enrich our collections. 

Visit to Kukje Gallery © Elizabeth Scott

I will need to gain approval for the new policy through our Members Committee and will get the opportunity to test this new direction this year through the Contemporary Art Society (CAS).  I am working with CAS to explore and identify artwork to acquire through their purchase fund as part of our CAS membership, this is a prime opportunity to trial the new direction of the collecting policy. In order to do the above I need buy-in from key senior members of staff as well as GAG staff, the aim being to inspire and encourage all stakeholders to see the benefits and excite them about this new direction.

This visit was an opportunity to exchange expertise and knowledge with organisations that have similar remits, and it helped form new international relationships and partnerships which have and will continue beyond my initial visit, with reciprocal visits to the UK being planned as well as future collaborations.

On a professional development level the visit was a wonderful opportunity to learn from different organisations. Seeing the varying practices broadened my perspective and helped me to question and challenge some UK sector norms which I will use in my current role and take into the future.

‘Elizabeth’s visit will benefit the Gallery in several ways, it will be a key influence on our programming policy as we update and develop it; and it will broaden our collecting remit, opening the collection up to more varied works that reflect London and Londoners, so keeping the Gallery relevant for our visitors into the future.’ 

Nick Bodger, Head of Cultural and Visitor Development, City of London Corporation