About 18 months ago, there was a meeting of local supporters of Korean culture, held at the Korean Embassy as part of an initiative by the embassy for getting feedback on its marketing efforts. One of the topics of conversation was whether there was be a business plan or a mission statement for the soon-to-be-opened Cultural Centre. What was the KCC going to be for? Who was its target market? What would be its success criteria?
Such questions were not answered at that particular meeting. Maybe somewhere in the bowels of the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism there’s a policy paper which sets out what the objectives of the well-funded international network of cultural centres is meant to achieve, but if so it wasn’t shared with us outsiders. If there is such a document, it’s a long and complex one, judging by the range of activities conducted by the London KCC in its first year of operation. Standing back from the range of activities that have gone on there, a number of strands seem discernible:
The promotion of Korean artists, performers and cultural content to the UK
Here the emphasis is on the promotion of artists and content from Korea. Examples are
- the various art exhibitions – bringing over from Korea the works of contemporary artists, either from the artists themselves or from public collections
- making available to a local audience a library of Korean DVDs and CDs
- the fortnightly film screenings, and of course the Korean Film Festival at the Barbican.
- giving the opportunity for meeting Korean cultural figures – for example poet Ko Un and film director Im Sang-soo
- providing a venue for Korean performers visiting for other purposes – such as theatre companies visiting the UK for the Edinburgh Festival
- the organisation of Korean participation in public events – the Thames Festival
- providing support for cultural events organised by other bodies – such as the Dano festival organised by the private-sector Korean Cultural Promotion Agency
A subsidiary agenda within cultural promotion is of course national promotion. Bearing in mind that so few Europeans know anything about Korea – and the things that do spring to mind when thinking of Korea tend to be negative (nuclear crisis, starvation in the North, divided country, unruly street demonstrations and the like) – the pushing of positive images of the Republic of Korea is clearly a political priority. The promotion of all the above cultural items obviously is part of this, but there have been two exhibitions which have been more political in nature:
- U-Design City: Seoul, promoting Seoul’s status as 2010 World Design City, fittingly enough during the London Festival of Architecture; and particularly
- Korea at 60: Forwards and Upwards, celebrating the 60th anniversary of the formation of the Republic.
With so many good things going on at the KCC, no-one really minded the latter exhibition, and the more knowledgeable visitors used it as an opportunity for the discussion of matters of historiography and national marketing.
The nurture and promotion of local talent
This aspect of the KCC’s activities during the year recognises that Korean talent is not to be found just in Korea. In the UK there are talented artists, designers and performers who have made their home here, as well as countless students who are here for a number of years and maybe longer. Examples of the support the KCC has extended this year have been
- the evening with the UK Korean Artists’ Association
- an exhibition of UK-based Korean artists selected by a curator from the British Council from a public “call for artists” – Entry Forms
- a fashion designer who held a show in the KCC during London Fashion Week
Keeping the local Korean community – particularly the younger generation – reminded of aspects of their own culture
If foreigners seem to know little about Korea, sometimes, sadly, the same can be said of overseas Koreans. Accordingly the KCC rightly regards the local Korean community as part of its target audience. Local schools have been invited for daytime educational sessions connected with exhibitions held at the KCC – for example the map exhibition – while special screenings of Korean animations have been put on which have definitely been geared towards local Korean tots.
Providing a venue for other organisations with compatible objectives
The KCC is in a prime location and is a great venue for meetings and cultural performances. The KCC has only finite resources for funding and organising Korean cultural events, and it therefore makes sense to invite other organisations to make use of the facilities. Examples have been
- the Korean Tourism Organisation, who held an entertaining evening with b-boys Last for One
- the Korean Spirit and Culture Promotion Project, who have held weekly documentary screenings at the KCC
- the Anglo-Korean Society, which has used the KCC as the venue for two evening events including an interesting talk by the former UK ambassador to Seoul, Warwick Morris.
Entering into cultural dialogue with non-Korean artists in the UK and elsewhere
This is an area which is the least obvious as being a core objective mandated from Seoul, but is an area where the KCC can do possibly some of its most interesting work. The exhibitions that I can remember along these lines have been Vessels (UK and Korean ceramic artists) and Blight and Hope (poverty seen through the lens of photographers from many different countries). The attraction of such exhibitions is that they bring in a different audience who might then be persuaded to come back again for other events. And it maybe persuades the core “Korean culture” audience also to explore different things. In fact, probably the most stimulating evening I spent at the KCC this year was a panel session discussing photojournalism associated with the Blight and Hope exhibition, in which Korea was hardly mentioned at all.
Promotion of Korean Studies
Here the KCC is perhaps more in competition with academic institutions such as SOAS. The KCC has promoted some incredibly good-value and well-taught Korean language classes1. In addition, the KCC has hosted interesting lectures by visiting academics.
Possibly the most successful and interesting talks have been the ones presented in association with a related exhibition (for example, the very first exhibition featuring, inter alia, works by Nam June Baik). I have managed to get to very few of these, but the reports I have heard from the people who have gone along have been extremely positive. While there is never just one way to approach a single painting or an exhibition, I often find it valuable to have one particular interpretation laid out for me. I can choose to disagree with it as I re-engage with the exhibition, but at least it’s a starting point. Often with exhibitions at the KCC and elsewhere, the viewer is given little help with how to engage with the work, with captions, catalogues and signage providing little help. While it could be said that this allows the viewer to form their own interpretations, blockbuster exhibitions at major galleries always nowadays have an optional audio guide – suggesting that no matter how familiar the artworks, people always appreciate a little help.
Promotion of Korean Food and hospitality
In a round-up of the KCC’s first year activities it would be wrong of me to omit the generous hospitality which accompanies the KCC’s events. The first night parties and other special events are always accompanied by a tasty buffet and wine. (And, if the KTO are also present, you can often find a bottle or two of soju surreptitiously doing the rounds).
The KCC staff are to be congratulated on a splendid first year. We look forward to an equally strong 2009.
- The language classes are let down only by the rather poor text books that come with the course – but the classes are so cheap that you can afford to go out and buy a decent text book to assist with the grammar and home study