Outgoing Gwangju Biennale Director Pushes Back Against Union Claims
By HG Masters
After weeks of public silence while a labor dispute swirled around the Gwangju Biennale, outgoing director Sunjung Kim released a statement on June 10 in which she rebuked the claims made by the Biennale’s union and defended her efforts to reform the internal structure of the Gwangju Biennale Foundation during her four-year tenure. Kim said her initiatives—which the union criticized as “privatization” and involved the allegedly unfair dismissal and discipline of management-level staff—were “long overdue systematic changes” and noted they are currently under review by government agencies.
On June 7, it was announced that the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism and the city of Gwangju will jointly audit the Gwangju Biennale Foundation to investigate its dispute with the union, given the two parties’ widely diverging accounts of events. Kim affirmed in her statement that the Foundation is cooperating fully and will accept the results or recommended changes. Kim apologized for the “confusion or discomfort that many people may have felt upon hearing the news about this incident before it was discussed or resolved within the Foundation” and urged the Biennale’s supporters not to let the controversy undermine the organization’s future projects, which include its 14th edition slated for just 15 months from now, in September 2022.
The Gwangju Biennale Foundation had previously tried to downplay the dispute by declining to make any public statements, including the announcement that Sunjung Kim would not be returning to her position as director. Meanwhile the union has spent the last month pillorying the Foundation, deploying rhetoric used to describe to South Korea’s strained intergenerational workplace and class conflicts, and making ad hominem attacks on Kim herself. The union escalated its campaign to the national level with a petition to the Blue House (the office of South Korea’s president) to investigate various forms of labor abuse and misconduct by Kim and the Foundation.
Most recently the union alleged that more than half of the 16 full-time employees of the Foundation do not have legally required work contracts, and erected a banner near the Biennale exhibition hall calling on Gwangju mayor Lee Yong-seop, who is also the Foundation’s president, to investigate the matter. While Kim maintained that the Foundation’s “internal issues cannot be disclosed in detail here,” she added that all “major decisions regarding the Foundation’s projects are made through a process of review and approval by the city government, and no project during [her] term has been conducted in violation of this process.”
Although considered the preeminent international art biennale in South Korea, and for East Asia at large, since its establishment in 1995, the Gwangju Biennale has long had a reputation as a difficult site in which to work due to the dynamics between the exhibition team and other staff including the Biennale’s curators. Kim appeared to allude to this in her statement when she noted that many people who had worked with the Foundation found it “too inefficient and obsolete for organizing an international art event.” This has been evident in past editions of the Biennale—from before Kim’s tenure—when artworks were not installed in time for the opening or curators were compelled to make last-minute changes to their exhibitions due to technical or personnel limitations.
The dispute between the union and the Foundation first emerged in the public domain during the limited run of the already twice-delayed 13th edition of the Biennale from April 1 to May 9. The Biennale’s union filed complaints on April 26 to Gwangju’s Anti-Corruption and Civil Rights Commission and the National Human Rights Commission of Korea. The Foundation said it would investigate after the Biennale’s run was finished. However, the Biennale union’s head at the time, who was also the leader of the Biennale’s exhibition team, resigned and then was dismissed on May 1. A second employee departed the general affairs office several days later. On May 13, the union filed a second round of complaints alleging that before investigations into the first complaints could be made, the Foundation had retaliated against employees and was trying to exert pressure on them from both inside and outside the organization.
So far no timeline for the results of the investigation into the dispute has been announced, and the Foundation has until the end of June, when Sunjung Kim's contract expires, to announce a replacement to guide the organization through the difficult rebuilding process ahead.
HG Masters is the deputy editor and deputy publisher of ArtAsiaPacific.
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