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Big ambition, big pressure: Seoul’s new art museum is in the spotlight

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South Korea’s $230 million National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) opened in November with a towering ambition — become what the MoMA is to New York and the Tate is to London.

The museum couldn’t be in a better location to attract attention — it sits just across the street from Gyeongbokgung, Seoul’s main royal palace, and adjacent to a neighborhood that’s one of Seoul’s most popular among tourists.

Other than Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art, a private art museumowned by Samsung, Seoul has no other large museum housing Korean contemporary art.

All of these factors have added up to put not just the art, but the new museum itself, under intense public scrutiny.

“There’s an incredible anticipation from the art world here about which works will be shown and how the space will be used,” says Gina Lee, a museum curator in Seoul.

With South Korea anxious to maintain its world-class standing amid surging development in China and other regional rivals, the pressure for global recognition is particularly intense.

“As South Korea’s only national art museum, one of our biggest missions is to showcase Korean art to the rest of the world, and to advance Korean art via various collaborations and exchanges with international institutions,” says Young-in Lee, the museum’s international affairs manager.

Early controversy

One of the museum’s first five showcase exhibits, Zeitgeist Korea (showing through April 27), drew early fire from critics of the museum.

The problem wasn’t the art itself — the exhibit showcases modern Korean art, with 59 works by 39 Korean artists — but the way it was selected.

The Korean Fine Arts Association and other artist groups alleged favoritism — 32 of the 39 featured artists are alums of Seoul National University’s art school, from which the exhibition’s curator and MMCA director Chung Hyung-min graduated.

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