The KCCUK – A look back at the first five years

by Philip Gowman on 1 February, 2013

in KCCUK | Talks and seminars

A text written in preparation for a panel session at the KCCUK on 30 January 2013, the fifth anniversary of the opening of the KCCUK back in 2008.

Korean Culture in London – or indeed in the UK more widely – did not start with the opening of the Korean Cultural Centre in 2008. But the establishment of a cultural venue at a high profile location with a regular government-funded budget has undoubtedly helped take the presentation of Korean Culture to a new level. Full-time, long-term, government-funded staff can obviously deliver projects that are beyond the reach of voluntary organisations. But going beyond the organisation of events – stressful enough in itself – the KCCUK has been able to build relationships with premier arts organisations in London such as the South Bank and the Institute of Contemporary Arts which has enabled Korean cultural events to be presented at mainstream venues and thus reach a more generalist audience; and a flourishing relationship with London City Hall has enabled the Korean Village to have become a central attraction of The Mayor’s Thames Festival. What is surprising though is that contrary to some expectations the entry of the Korean government into the promotion of Korean culture, artists and performers has not squeezed out Korean private sector and individual initiatives.

Slide02

So what was Korean cultural life like before the KCCUK? Well, there was not a black hole. There were Korean Film Festivals at the Prince Charles Cinema and elsewhere. There were visual arts, traditional music and cultural talks. There was even K-pop and K-indie: acid jazz group Roller Coaster came over, as did the punk group Crying Nut. K-pop balladeer Lee Soo-young sang to a full house in the Fairfield Hall in Croydon, and Trot singer Kim Soo-hee filled St Johns Smith Square.

Many different organisations promoted events for different audiences and with different funding models. Universities such as SOAS, Cambridge or Durham, with modest internal budgets but access to grants, would invite visiting performers to enrich the experience of those studying relevant degree subjects and to reach out to their own extended constituencies. The self-funded Korean Residents Association would be looking to bring over stars to entertain their own membership in the New Malden and Kingston area. And smaller groups such as Dulsori, the Korean Cultural Promotion Agency and even the Korean Anglican Community Centre would be trying to reach out to a more general audience, but with no access to regular funding.

But while there was plenty going on, it was not perfect. What was remarkable was that these small, amateur bodies managed to achieve so much and with so few resources. But here are some of the things which meant that there was a need for a new approach.

  • There was little coordination between the various cultural initiatives
  • Publicity tended to be last-minute and not well thought out: in fact one of the reasons the website London Korean Links came into being in the first place was to provide a central events calendar for those who might want to explore Korean culture.
  • Organisers, dependent on ad-hoc sponsorship and donations, would limp from one funding crisis to the next
  • The organisational bodies, with limited or no budget for staff, would only last for as long as the goodwill and energy of the masterminds behind them.
  • Programmes (such as the film festivals) could be driven by what the sponsors wanted rather than what would be best for the audience.

The opening of the KCCUK five years ago in January 2008 was a milestone in changing this. But let’s not forget that a place like this is not opened overnight. Negotiations to take on the Northumberland Avenue site – formerly occupied by a Virgin Bride store – started almost two years before then, and at one point it was looking possible that a KCC in Kensington rather than Trafalgar Square was on the cards.

And during that time, staff were in place at the Korean Embassy, either on a full or part-time basis, to organise events. 2006 saw the first of the Korean Film Festivals organised by future KCCUK staff which was towards the end of an ambitious programme of events called Think Korea 2006.

Slide03

The fitting out of the KCCUK premises also gave an indication of the general direction that they were to follow in the future. Contemporary artist and designer Choi Jeong-hwa was commissioned to design the interior, and is responsible for this incredibly flexible space. The fabrics of some of the furniture are by fashion designer Lie Sang-bong. The best of modern Korean design was being invested in a building which was to showcase the best of Korean contemporary and traditional culture.

When the KCCUK opened, there were a few Korea-watchers who were concerned that the taking on of an expensive property in a prime location would soak up all of a limited cultural promotion budget. We were very happy to have been proved wrong. In the first year of the KCCUK’s existence we had two big exhibitions of work by artists from Korea; we had Im Sang-soo, Kim Ji-woon and Lee Byung-hun visiting; there were ambitious artistic collaborations with UK and international artists and photographers; there were initiatives to reach out to local schools with the Korean maps exhibition, and to introduce some of Samsung’s UK staff to Korean culture. We also had the first of the Korean language classes, fortnightly film screenings and of course the Korean Film Festival.

Audience footfall, at 20,000 in the first year, was double what had been projected. Audiences were building nicely, from a broad ethnic and demographic background. The prime location was critical for attracting “passing trade”, and the permanent staffing meant the ability to build up a contacts database of visitors, to monitor and respond to audience demand, and to develop plans that reached beyond the next big event. And because people could see that the KCCUK was there to stay, there was the ability to build relationships with venues, organisers and sponsors. Here Asiana Airlines deserve special mention, and the Corinthia Hotel, who have been consistent supporters, though Samsung, CJ and others have also been generous.

Where did we go from the incredibly successful first year? 2009 saw a continuation of the good work, with the film festival showcasing some classic Yu Hyun-mok films from the 1960s to complement the latest from the box office; and for the first time an attempt to reach out to a new constituency with a manhwa exhibition. Also for the first time the KCCUK ran a literature essay contest. Author Choe Yun came to talk about her work – There a Petal Silently Falls, a very interesting and almost controversial choice for an essay topic being set at the time of the 1980 Gwangju massacre. Maybe these efforts in encouraging interest in Korean literature were ahead of their time. The essay contest only lasted two years, and I suspect if it were relaunched now, with more solid grass-roots interest in broader Korean culture, there would be a lot more entrants.

2010 saw the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the start of the Korean War, and events which included an auction of 40 specially commissioned works by contemporary Korean artists in aid of British Korean War veterans. We also saw how Buddhist wood carving was being reinvented by the energetic work of Park Chan-soo.

Slide09

2011 saw a bigger focus on music at the KCCUK, and an event to support the inaugural Korean Grand Prix. And it was the year when three huge events were featured at the Edinburgh International Festival , as well as several events at the Fringe. But it was also the first year that the KCCUK really dipped its toes into the world of K-pop. Their first K-pop night aimed at a younger audience was held in 2011, and it was the year that SHINee managed to crash the website of the Odeon Cinema when tickets for their performance at the London Korean Film Festival went online.

2012 must have been the most exhausting of them all: it was the year that saw the launch of the K-pop Academy which aimed to give young K-pop fans a broader appreciation of Korean history and culture; it was the year too of the 12 Directors, with weekly screenings and 11 face-to-face interviews. And of course it was All Eyes on Korea, with a huge programme of events designed to coincide with the London 2012 Olympics, which won the KCCUK a special award from President Lee Myung-bak. And let’s not forget that among all that the KCCUK also won an award for their project during London Fashion Week.

Last year Korean Culture shone very bright indeed. And if we thought that the KCCUK had nowhere to go from there, we now have the Year of the Four Actors and plenty else to keep us engaged and informed.

Among all these achievements it is notable that non-KCCUK events have not been crowded out. Of course, the big entertainment companies have now discovered that there’s a market for their acts in London, with CNBlue and BigBang in 2012, and Teen Top coming soon. But looking back at all the visual art events held last year, my two favourite ones had no involvement from the KCCUK that I am aware of: the high profile commission of Sung-hwan Kim’s work by the Tate Modern for their inaugural exhibition in their new oil tanks; and the incredibly moving work by Hwang Ji-hae commemorating the Korean War, which won a Gold medal and the President’s Award at the Chelsea Flower Show. The latter installation highlighted, however, some of the challenges of one-off initiatives which are not part of a programme of events: the sponsors backed out, leaving Miss Hwang’s UK contractors effectively having to provide their services for free.

But these events complemented the All Eyes on Korea programme, as did a small private-sector musical remembering the lives of the Comfort Women, which fortuitously showcased some music by Won Il a month before he was due to perform on the South Bank as part of the KCC’s festival of traditional and fusion Korean music in the All Eyes on Korea event. Private sector and state sector can coexist and enrich the audiences for both.

What can we look forward to in the future? Well, the KCCUK premises are on a 15 year lease, which shows that we have plenty more to enjoy. And there’s plenty of momentum that’s been built up.

Slide10

It was this time last year that the Korean Minister of Culture wanted to unleash at Third Hallyu. The first two Korean waves were generated by TV Dramas and K-pop. The hoped-for third one will be broader and more sustainable, based on Korea’s rich traditional culture, and I hope the KCCUK will be at the crest of that wave. The K-pop Academy is perfectly in sympathy with the Minister’s initiative.

And for the rest, I don’t want to commit the KCCUK management to things that they can’t deliver, but allow me to present a wish list.

A continuation of the film and visual arts will of course be one of the core activities. The year of the 12 directors is being followed by the year of the 4 actors (and actresses). But there are still some top-flight directors we haven’t met yet – Lee Chang-dong and Kim Ki-duk among them. I’m sure they’ll come one day.

But let’s continue to build on traditional music – it requires regular exposure to educate an audience. Fusion music – popular or contemporary compositions using traditional instruments – can help bring in new audiences, but let’s also understand the traditional instruments in their original context. The 5th birthday concert at the Cadogan Hall on 26 January was, I hope, an indicator of more things to come: the best traditional performers (including the holder of the Intangible Cultural Asset for Pansori) presented in an accessible but still authentic way.

Commercial K-pop doesn’t really need support from the Korean Ministry of Culture, but maybe a bit of Indie and jazz music does. Let’s hope we see more to follow on the heels of Winterplay, Biuret and Nah Youn Sun, all of whom have performed in the UK over the past few years.

Literature is getting a little more attention now, thanks to some entertaining authors and good translators. How about following the example of this year’s Jeonju International Film Festival by bringing together films inspired by the work of a particular author?

The KCCUK has also been boldly promoting other Korean creative industries such as design, fashion, and animation, often in collaboration with British designers and artists. The promotion of such areas can reach out to a completely different audience. I hope we will continue to see examples of these newer areas where Korea is beginning to excel, alongside the core contents of films and the visual arts.

So it’s been an action-packed and incredibly enjoyable first 5 years, and the future will be equally exhilarating for the audience and exhausting for the KCCUK, because we know how hard they work. We all owe the KCCUK staff a huge debt of gratitude. And we look forward to all the events that Director Kim, Mrs Jeon and all the staff have up their sleeves for the future.

Photo credits include KCCUK and www.feetmanseoul.com

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: