Kim Keon Hee, the Art-Loving First Lady of Korea and ‘K-Culture Salesperson,’ Talks Mark Rothko and Moon-Jar Diplomacy

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Artnet News recently caught up with Kim Keon Hee, the First Lady of the Republic of Korea, after an art-filled trip to the U.S. with her husband, President Yoon SK-cultureuk Yeol. In addition to visiting with President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden, Kim made visits to museums in Washington D.C. and Boston. As a former organizer of major art exhibitions in her own right, Kim’s love of art is palpable, and she has been watching the fast growing art scene in South Korea with interest.

Since President Yoon took office last year, Kim’s focus has been on supporting art activities by people with disabilities, on climate action, and on the preservation of traditional Korean culture and heritage. She is also an animal rights advocate and takes part in various animal welfare activities as well. Since President Yoon and Kim married in 2012, they have adopted six dogs and five cats, all of which live with them at the official residence of the president in Seoul.

We caught up with Kim for a chat about her recent U.S. visit and her support of the arts in her country. (Some answers have been edited for clarity and length.)

First Lady Kim Keon Hee at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) Boston with Matthew Teitelbaum (right), Director of MFA Boston. April, 2023. Office of the President, Republic of Korea.<br /> Cy Twombly, <i>Synopsis of a Battle, </i>(1968)<br /> © Cy Twombly Foundation

First Lady Kim Keon Hee at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) Boston with Matthew Teitelbaum (right), Director of MFA Boston. April, 2023. Office of the President, Republic of Korea.
Cy Twombly, Synopsis of a Battle, (1968)
© Cy Twombly Foundation

Q: Your company, Covana Contents, organized many major exhibitions of important international artists in Korea under your leadership, such as Andy Warhol (2009), Marc Chagall (2010), Mark Rothko (2015), Le Corbusier (2016), Alberto Giacometti (2018), and Fauvisme (2019). How do you think Korean art audiences may have changed over the course of time in terms of their art appreciation and taste? (Though Kim formerly served as CEO of Covana Contents, in 2022, shortly after President Yoon Suk Yeol took office, she officially resigned from her post as the head of the company.)

A: From what I’ve experienced when I used to work as a professional exhibition organizer for over a decade, I feel that the visitor base for exhibits in Korea has expanded and, as a result, the appreciation for art and taste have grown more sophisticated.

I believe this is due to the rising quality of Korean art across the board and the increasing exposure to art that has come amid Korea’s economic development.

I put together the 2015 Mark Rothko exhibition in Seoul with 50 of his pieces on loan from the National Gallery of Art in the United States. The 2016 Le Corbusier exhibition displayed about 500 works of art. Both exhibitions set records in Korea.

In particular, the Mark Rothko exhibition marked the first time the National Gallery of Art loaned a large number of its works to Korea. The exhibition was so popular among the public that it won three awards at the 2nd Seoul Arts Center Awards—the grand prize, awarded for the most visited and one selected by journalists.

These exhibitions have provided the public more exposure to global artists. At the same time, the rising interest in art exhibitions here has led to many more of these events, forming a virtuous cycle.

I used to get a great sense of fulfilment seeing people visit the exhibitions that I planned and appreciate the works of my favorite artists with deep admiration just as I did.

First Lady Kim Keon Hee at The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. April, 2023. Office of the President, Republic of Korea. Mark Rothko, Green and Maroon, (1953) © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

First Lady Kim Keon Hee at The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. April, 2023. Office of the President, Republic of Korea.
Mark Rothko, Green and Maroon, (1953)
© 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Q: The Korean art market and Korean artists are garnering more international attention in recent years. How do you think that your role as the country’s First Lady will help to take this further?

A: I could sense how greatly the stature of Korean culture and art has risen when I traveled abroad or met with international dignitaries in this first year since the inauguration of President Yoon Suk Yeol.

Interest in a variety of fields has grown, ranging from K-pop, dramas and films to fashion, food and traditional culture. Given Korea’s diversity, originality and creativity, our culture has tremendous potential. I think I could play the role as a “K-culture salesperson” to publicize and promote it overseas.

Q: Do you have any concrete plans that you can share?

A: First of all, when foreign heads of state, their spouses and officials from international organizations visit Korea, I present Korean culture and experiences that allow them to feel the charm of our culture.

For instance, when the President of Vietnam [Nguyen Xuan Phuc] visited Korea last December, President Yoon and I invited him to the banquet hall Sangchunjae at [former presidential compound] Cheong Wa Dae for a friendly gathering over tea. While there, I introduced cultural aspects of our traditional architecture to him.

When the delegation from the Bureau International des Expositions Enquiry Mission visited Korea in early April this year, they were served traditional Korean cuisine at a Sangchunjae dinner. Gugak [traditional Korean music] musicians also put on traditional performances for the delegation.

For trips overseas, I prepare gifts imbued with our traditional culture and spirit or wear clothes and carry bags made by Korean designers to showcase the excellence of our fashion.

During the state visit to the United States in April, a moon jar decorated with mother-of-pearl was presented to President Joe Biden and Dr. Jill Biden. I also gave Mrs. Kishida Yuko, the spouse of the Prime Minister of Japan, traditional Korean confections when I visited the Japanese Prime Minister’s official residence at her invitation in March.

Since many people I meet abroad are curious about Korea and its culture, I invite them to Korea, so they will have a chance to experience and feel our culture firsthand.

First Lady Kim Keon Hee at The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. April, 2023. Office of the President, Republic of Korea. Vincent van Gogh, The Road Menders, (1889) © The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1949 Paul Cézanne, Seated Woman in Blue, (between 1902 and 1906) © The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1946 Pierre Bonnard, The Palm, (1926) © 2023 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

First Lady Kim Keon Hee at The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. April, 2023. Office of the President, Republic of Korea.
Vincent van Gogh, The Road Menders, (1889)
© The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1949
Paul Cézanne, Seated Woman in Blue, (between 1902 and 1906)
© The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1946
Pierre Bonnard, The Palm, (1926)
© 2023 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Q: What would you like to see in terms of maturation and growth of the Korean art market on the international art scene? What would the ideal picture be?

A: What I considered most important when I used to prepare exhibitions was making sure the visitors could understand the artist through the works and eventually find comfort and consolation in them.

Until now, there has been a tendency in Korea to regard art as something distant and difficult. Recently, however, an increasing number of people, especially the young, enjoy art and exhibitions. I think we are headed in a positive direction.

In the long term, I believe that as more people encounter and enjoy art, Koreans will grow more sophisticated in artistic taste, which will prove instrumental in generating more globally renowned artists.

Q: What were the major art-related items on your itinerary during the state visit to the U.S.?

A: First, I visited the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. at the invitation of Dr. Jill Biden, and we looked around the Mark Rothko exhibition.

Mark Rothko is one of my personal favorites, and in 2015—overcoming some challenges on the way—I managed to bring some of his works from the National Gallery of Art’s collection to Korea for an exhibition.

Last year, when Joe Biden came to Korea, he said he had heard a lot about this exhibition. So, to thank him for his visit, I presented him a catalogue from that exhibition for Dr. Biden since she had been unable to join the President on that trip to Korea.

Seeing Rothko’s works with her in person after that earlier connection was very meaningful for me.

Mark Rothko was such a great painter that Apple’s Steve Jobs continued to research him even while fighting pancreatic cancer. He painted pictures that soothe people’s hearts; many shed tears while looking at his work. I was very impressed as well when seeing his work for the first time in 2006.

Therefore, it was especially meaningful for me to see works by Rothko that had never been exhibited in public—those that will be displayed at an upcoming exhibition at the National Gallery of Art.

In addition, I visited the National Museum of Asian Art in Washington, D.C. and Museum of Fine Arts Boston to view Korean cultural assets on display at each one and discussed their possible cooperation with Korean art galleries and museums.

First Lady Kim Keon Hee at The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. April, 2023. Office of the President, Republic of Korea. Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Luncheon of the Boating Party, (between 1880 and 1881) © The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1923

First Lady Kim Keon Hee at The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. April, 2023. Office of the President, Republic of Korea.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Luncheon of the Boating Party, (between 1880 and 1881)
© The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1923

Q: How will these events further help to strengthen the cultural ties between South Korea and the U.S.?

A: I believe that I’ll be able to serve as a bridge between the two countries, promoting exchanges in culture and art or facilitating discussions that have stalled.

Q: Will you help negotiate major exhibitions, events or cultural exchange opportunities in both the U.S. and Korea?

A: I will do everything I can to facilitate exchanges between Korea and the United States in culture and art, and I believe that it is a role I can play.

During my visit to the U.S. in April, I suggested that the staff of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston visit Korea to discuss art collection exchanges and joint exhibitions with Korea’s National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art. The Boston museum replied that its chair of Asian art would come to Korea in the near future and discuss the matter.

Q: Do you agree that art (and culture in general) has a key role to play in international relations? What kind of role is that?

A: I believe that culture has no borders and that a country’s international status and dignity are determined by its unique art and culture.

Art and culture can also play a major role in unraveling complex political, economic and diplomatic issues that have become tangled between different countries.

I strongly believe that Korea’s elevated status today can be credited to the soft power-based diplomacy that’s built upon Korea’s diverse and creative culture—in addition to our country’s achievements in economic development.

Q: What kind of role do you think the First Lady should play in this?

A: As I explained earlier, I believe that I should play the role of a K-culture salesperson who promotes our culture and of a facilitator who supports the President and the government in cultural diplomacy.

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