Jul 20 2021

Museum Watch Committee Urges Gwangju Biennale Foundation to Undergo Reform

by Gabrielle Tse

Exterior view of the exhibition hall for the 13th Gwangju Biennale, “Minds Rising, Spirits Tuning.” Courtesy the Gwangju Biennale Foundation.

Responding to the recent labor disputes and controversies at the Gwangju Biennale Foundation, the International Committee for Museums and Collections of Modern Art (CIMAM)’s Museum Watch Committee released a press statement on July 19 expressing their concern about the Foundation’s “resistance to organizational reform.” The statement criticized the Foundation’s organizational structure as being “outdated,” “inefficient,” and “ill-suited for a professional event as large and with as high artistic ambitions as the Gwangju Biennale,” and urged “systematic structural changes.”

CIMAM’s statement suggested that the recent public conflict between the Foundation’s labor union and former president Sunjung Kim may have arisen from Kim’s efforts to restructure the organization. According to the Museum Watch Committee, during Kim’s tenure, the Foundation carried out consultations that revealed the need for organizational reform, and Kim’s management decisions subsequently led to tensions between Kim and the union, as well as the firing of two employees, including the head of the union. CIMAM’s view closely echoes Kim’s statement released on June 10, which not only clarified her desire to “reform outdated practices” at the Foundation as part of her campaign to “[implement] long overdue systematic changes.”

CIMAM also sent a letter asking for the city government of Gwangju to commission an independent external assessment of the Foundation, in addition to the investigation currently being conducted by Gwangju’s Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism in cooperation with the South Korean Ministry of Employment and Labor. The current audit resulted from the labor union’s complaints filed against Kim in late April, with accusations of unfair dismissal and labor and verbal abuse. CIMAM’s proposed audit will establish roadmaps, analyze existing challenges, and offer potential solutions, including organizational and governance criteria.

After former president Sunjung Kim departed her position on June 30, reports have surfaced in the Korean media that the foundation has narrowed its selection to two final candidates. The shortlist was made by a seven-member advisory body, which was formed by the City Council of Gwangju for the express purpose of finding a suitable president for the Foundation. According to Jeonnam Ilbo, in an article dated July 18, the two yet-unnamed candidates are speculated to be a critic, curator, and art museum director in Seoul and Gyeonggi who previously worked on a project for the Venice Biennale; and a previous businessperson who now serves as the director of a well-known art museum in Seoul. The new president will be appointed by the mayor of Gwangju.

The next edition of the Gwangju Biennale is set to take place in September 2022 as scheduled.

Gabrielle Tse is an editorial intern at ArtAsiaPacific.

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