Director of South Korea’s MMCA museums resigns amid allegations of mishandled acquisitions

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South Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism has accepted the resignation of the director of the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA), Youn Bum-mo, first submitted on 10 April. Youn was serving a second three-year term due to expire in 2025.

While no official reason for Youn’s departure has been issued, it is likely to be connected to 16 allegations of illegal or inappropriate actions, including mishandled acquisitions at auctions, identified during an audit by the ministry conducted late last year. A rightward shift in the political climate since Youn’s 2019 appointment is also widely speculated to have played a role.

MMCA is one of South Korea’s premier state-run museums, with four locations in Seoul, Gwacheon and Cheongju. It will be helmed by Park Jong-dal during the several months-long process of appointing a successor. A spokesperson for MMCA says that Park has worked as their director general for planning and general management since April 2021 and that the new appointment will be handled entirely at the ministerial level.

As reported in The Korea Herald, the 16 infractions identified by last year’s audit included several regarding acquisitions at auction. Staff used messaging app KakaoTalk rather than authorised channels to communicate during the auctions, and the number of external experts consulted over purchases was reduced in 2021 from 50 to 11. The audit claimed that MMCA had driven up the auction prices of seven works and exceeded the prices recommended by the appraisal committee by up to 50m won (£30,000), though not all of the seven bids were successful.

Other charges included passing along 32m won (£18,000) in revenue from museum facilities like shops and restaurants to staff as bonuses rather than submitting surplus funds back to government coffers, reported Korea JoongAng Daily. Contracts, such as for the lighting of the exhibition of Samsung chair Lee Kun-hee’s collection, were awarded privately rather than via the open bids legally required. Yuan did not report a hack of the museum’s official YouTube channel in August 2022, or address complaints of power abuses among staff, said the audit.

Youn’s initial appointment during the administration of Democratic president Moon Jae-in also sparked controversy. The three finalists included former Seoul Museum of Art director Kim Hong-hee and Lee Yongwoo, former director of the Gwangju Biennale Foundation and several private museums in China. Lee publicly alleged political favoritism after the other candidates were permitted to retake a practical administrative skills test that only Lee passed the first time.

Previously a prominent critic, curator and art history professor at Dongguk University, Youn’s specialisation in the Minjung social realist, anti-dictatorship protest art of the 1980s and in North Korean art aligned with the cultural directives of liberal president Moon. During his tenure at MMCA, Youn advocated for dialogue with North Korean arts institutions and prepared collaborative shows of Korean art with New York’s Guggenheim and the San Diego Museum of Art.

Youn was reappointed to a second three-year term in February 2022, just ahead of the March 2022 presidential election narrowly won by conservative Yoon Suk-yeol of the People Power Party.

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