Kim Hae-gon on the Maeulmisul Art Project supporting regional renewal
Creating jobs for artists and promoting the cultural regeneration of local communities are the twin goals of the Maeulmisul Art Project. At its core is the idea that by exhibiting works of art that feature stories from Korea’s villages set in everyday locations, the project creates opportunities for artists to make work as well as increasing the enjoyment for the village residents and inspiring local pride.
The total annual budget for this project is 2 to 3.5 billion KRW and rather than relying on corporate sponsorship is derived solely from public funds secured through municipal governments. The committee in charge of the project is responsible for planning programs, selecting villages and artists, and arranging inspections, workshops, meetings with stakeholders, and evaluations. Since its inception in 2009, it has played a significant role in narrowing the cultural gap between Seoul and the rest of the country. Through village-wide art initiatives the project has also contributed to a recovering sense of community among village residents.
In contrast to many works of art that achieve widespread exposure in the Korean artworld, those generated as part of the Maeulmisul Art Project emphasise communication with the community in question, as well as the process by which the art itself is created. Because the history, ecology, environment, culture, and local perspectives must be incorporated into the final piece, the artists work in close contact with the village residents from the outset. And due to the fact that the residents themselves become the true owners of the works of art upon their completion, the process of collecting the opinions of locals is of the utmost importance.
Over the past seven years, the Maeulmisul Art Project has transformed 82 villages. Among these, the Gamcheon-dong Culture Village in Busan,the Utopia-ro (or Utopia Road) in Seogwipo, Jejudo Island,and the Art Maze Park in Yeongwol-gun, Gangwon-do, can be singled out as representative success stories. Once upon a time, these villages were not on any traveller’s radar; today, however, all three are major cultural destinations.
The Gamcheon-dong Culture Village was selected for the Maeulmisul Art Project in both 2009 and 2012, and work at the Busan landmark continues to this day. During the Korean War (1950–53), the area it occupies served as a resettlement area for refugees, formed along the road winding around the mountainside. Because of this, the residences look as though they are stacked one on top of the other, and it is possible to take in the entire village in a single glance from the mountaintop. The impoverished nature of the village’s infrastructure and environment are such that the alleyways are so narrow that it can be difficult for two people to pass, and many of the villagers still rely on public bathrooms. Even at the start of the Maeulmisul Art Project, save for the participating artists and a few village residents, there were not many who showed interest in participating in the project. “How will this change anything?” was the dominant opinion among the villagers, and even the municipal government was uncooperative.
After the project took off, there was a dramatic shift. The village became the focus of both local and overseas media, and was described as “the place where we most want to live in Busan’s Saha-gu district”, “a Busan landmark”, and “the most beautiful village in Asia”. In 2015 it received official recognition from a UNESCO educational program. It was only natural that the place would also attract tourists. The village that once had no visitors to speak of went on to boast one million visitors in 2014 alone. Artists, residents, and administrators alike agreed to collaborate on the creation of a village business. Described as a “village corporation”, the area has established a unique system that provides a variety of cultural services to tourists and takes the lead on profitable ventures for the village. As such, Gamcheon-dong went from being a village that only drew local traffic to a nationally significant cultural site. To say nothing of increased cultural enjoyment of the villagers themselves, the village has become a major success story for its economic growth.
An extension of the city’s preexisting Artist’s Walkway – a 4.9 kilometer path highlighted by the Leejungseop Art Museum – Seogwipo’s Utopia-ro is a development that is also worthy of being featured as a success story. The city of Seogwipo applied to the Maeulmisul Art Project 2012 with the aim of reviving the faded former city centre by creating a “utopia road” filled with art. But a lack of understanding on the part of the residents kept the project mired in civil complaints for seven out of the thirteen months of its construction. Fortunately, those involved persevered in their attempts to persuade the residents, who were eventually won over. In 2013, work began on a theatre that had been abandoned for the better part of a decade, transforming it to an art space that would eventually become the Arario Museum. In addition to the establishment of the gallery, the area along the pathway also features small independent workshops enclosed in empty residences, functional performances spaces, and sites offering educational programs, as well as wall relief murals, sculptures, and a total of 45 diverse works of art.
Following the completion of the project, Seogwipo demonstrated a visible increase in regional activity. The city is becoming the type of destination that visitors dream of, blessed with natural sights, a unique island culture, and now art. Seogwipo’s success story has become a revelation of sorts, as local residents begin to consider why culture is so important. Encouraged by the success of the Artist’s Walk, the regional government has moved forward in a similar vein with its Art Island project, an attempt to transform the entire island, inviting both domestic and overseas artists to come and produce work there.
The region of Kimsatgat-myeon in Yeongwol-gun, Gangwon-do, is the proud home of Gossigul, or Gossi Cave. It is a place that honours the story of General Go Jong-won, a patriot and soldier who fought in the Imjin War (1592–98). The cave was first developed as an attraction in 1973 when the surrounding land was also being developed for a tourist site. An amusement park known as Gossigul Land was in the process of being developed, but due to a combination of building code violations and lower-than-anticipated interest from the public, the park closed; the neglected facilities could not help but provoke displeasure from locals.
The very same Gossigul could not be more different today. Through the involvement of the Maeulmisul Project in 2010 and 2013, the amusement park spaces and facilities, were repurposed as a cultural space with a completely new premise—an “eco art maze”. As the 3,300 square metre plot of land was stripped of the former amusement park rides, trees were planted in the form of a maze, adorned with art pieces made with salvaged materials from the former amusement park. What was once an abandoned junkyard had been transformed into a dreamy creative wonderland. Expressing a world unseen, this positive change was spearheaded by artistic endeavours that communicate the power of diverse imaginations.
This seven-year metamorphosis in the 82 villages can largely be attributed to the fact that both the artists and the village residents possessed similar sensibilities about the village and had a shared affinity for its various stories, histories, and culture. The Maeulmisul Project is establishing itself as a new leader in regional public art, acting as a bridge between artists and the villages, bringing joy and happiness to communities. Through such projects, the villages themselves become the art gallery, and the lives of the villagers become a key component of the art – a fact that appeals to the residents.
In addition to offering project funding, the Maeulmisul Project is responsible for caring for the villages after the project has ended as well as running art tours, public art academy education programs, and a variety of other interactive events. The creation of art is important, but without sufficient follow-up after these projects have concluded, the positive momentum cannot sustain itself. At present, the Maeulmisul Project manages the project regions with a multifaceted approach, starting with the creation phase, during which the committee recommends materials most suitable for the environment and ending with the point at which the village is surveyed after the pieces have been completed. A “sunset policy”, wherein the pieces are dismantled and the area is returned to its original state after a set period of time, has proven to be especially effective.
The Project also runs an art travel program that encourages artists to link in with other top projects, with the idea of increasing the expansion and development potential of public art projects. The program is proving to be a worthwhile cause in that it creates artistic communities that might otherwise only be seen abroad; in fact, many of these projects have been successful in drawing art aficionados from overseas – another reason to feel encouraged. The project also runs a variety of public art educational programs including seminars, workshops, and urban consulting programs that present a new vision of what village art can be.
Focusing on places that would otherwise go unnoticed – places on the brink of collapse, abandoned spaces, and those that feel culturally stagnant – instead of major cities with already rich cultural environments, the project has been active in the promotion of the power of art to rejuvenate these communities that are under-appreciated yet possess potential. The Maeulmisul Art Project continues to engage in experimental programming as a means of narrowing the social and cultural gap between the central capital area around Seoul and the provinces, rejuvenating local economies, increasing the pleasure of residents in their communities, promoting the cultural development of villages, and rebuilding regional communities.
Kim Hae-gon is General Director of the Maeulmisul Art Project, initiated in 2009 as part of a ‘New Deal’ style arts project focusing on rejuvenating regional areas, bringing energy to communities on the brink of collapse. It is sponsored by the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism together with Arts Council Korea and run by the Maeulmisul Art Project promotion committee.|www.maeulmisul.org