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  • Dec 07, 2015

Korean Museum Appoints Controversial New Director

Bartomeu Mar

The National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) in Seoul confirmed on December 2 that Bartomeu Marí has been appointed its new director. Marí, who will be the first non-Korean to hold the post, had previously directed the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA) from 2008 to 2015. MMCA’s decision to select Marí for the top job comes after the Catalonian director resigned from MACBA in March following a censorship scandal that continues to roil international curatorial networks, particularly in Europe.

As the head of the MMCA, which in 2013 relocated its headquarters from suburban Gwacheon to a massive complex near Seoul’s galleries and cultural spaces in the Jongno district, Marí will oversee three museums nationwide and a large internal bureaucracy. He will report directly to the culture minister of South Korea, Kim Jong-deok, and fills a vacancy left behind after the forced resignation of director Chung Hyung-min in 2014 following accusations of nepotism and preferential hiring. Local artists had decried her choice of staff members and the artists included in the museum’s inaugural exhibitions, which showcased a disproportionately large number of artists who taught or graduated from the Seoul National University, where Chung had been a professor.

On November 11, after Marí was announced as one of the three shortlisted candidates in late October, more than 600 members of Korea’s art community signed a petition (circulated on Facebook) that expressed concern about Marí’s consideration in the wake of the MACBA controversy. As the open letter reveals, artists and curators in Korea are particularly sensitive to the issue of censorship, as incidents have marred even respected domestic institutions in recent years. Most recently, in Gwangju, Yongwoo Lee, the co-founder and longtime director of the Gwangju Biennale, resigned after a painting by Hong Seong-dam—which depicts the aftermath of the Sewol ferry disaster and portrays the current president, Park Geun-hye, as a scarecrow—was removed from the exhibition “Sweet Dew – After 1980” at the Gwangju Museum of Art. The exhibition was meant to mark the 20th anniversary of the Gwangju Biennale, which draws its institutional mandate from the city’s pro-democracy uprising that deposed the military regime established by the current president’s father, Park Chung-hee.

Exterior view of

Marí’s candidacy, and ongoing turmoil about his position as head of CIMAM (International Committee for Museums and Collections of Modern Art), had reprised scrutiny and debate about what exactly happened, and who was to blame, for events at MACBA. In March, Marí abruptly cancelled the exhibition “The Beast and the Sovereign” over the inclusion of a sculpture, Not Dressed for Conquering (2015), by Austrian artist Ines Doujak, that appeared to depict the former Spanish monarch Juan Carlos I in a sexual arrangement with Bolivian labor leader and feminist Domitila Chúngara and a dog, while positioned atop a bed of SS-like helmets. Juan Carlos’s wife, former Queen Sophia is president of honor of the MACBA Foundation. After widespread outrage from institutions, curators and artists across Europe, Marí allowed the exhibition to proceed with the offending artwork still on view and then resigned. According to Marí, at the same "extraordinary" meeting of the MACBA Foundation board of directors on March 23 when his resignation was accepted, the board members also fired the exhibition’s two in-house staff members, chief curator Valentin Roma and head of public programs, Paul B. Preciado. In an emailed statement to ArtAsiaPacific, Marí denied any involvement in the actions taken by the board against Roma and Preciado.

Subsequently, members of CIMAM, angered over Marí’s actions in MACBA, have engaged in various tactical moves to oust him from the head of the international organization. When Marí’s supporters on the CIMAM board announced that they would continue to support him in that role, three other board members—Charles Esche (director of Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven), Vasıf Kortun (director of Research and Programs, SALT, Istanbul), and Abdellah Karroum (director of Mathaf, Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha)—submitted their resignations in November.

In Seoul, Marí’s arrival at MMCA, which could be as soon as mid-December, will be greeted by apprehension by many in the Korean art scene. But many also considered him the preferred choice over the other two candidates—Yoon Jin-seop, a professor at Honam University, and Choi Hyo-jun, the former director of Deoksugung National Museum of Art at the National Museum of Contemporary Art (one of the three MMCA branches) and the Gyeonggi Museum of Modern Art—who were viewed as more conservative members of the Korean art establishment, much like the previous director Chung. At a speech on November 17 in Korea, outgoing director of the Tate Modern, Chris Dercon had voiced his support for Marí as someone who could bring the massive Korean institution up to the international level.

In early December, after the announcement, the Korean artists group petition4art released a new letter asking for a public pledge against censorship and political interference, and calling for a clear framework to protect the cultural institution from government control. In the absence of a professional museum director, the Ministry of Culture, Sport and Tourism has expanded its control over the institution. The petition4art group also voiced their other concern that the museum would come to serve the "art world," as an emergent global class divorced from national concerns. Ultimately, the proof will be in the MMCA’s future programming, and whether the museum can establish itself as a respected institution at home and internationally.

*This article was amended on December 15 after ArtAsiaPacific received an email from Marí asserting that the widely circulating accounts of his firing curators Preciado and Roma were false. It was the MACBA Foundation Board which was responsible for that decision and Marí claimed "it was done independently of and without my involvement." 

HG Masters is editor at large at ArtAsiaPacific.