Director in censorship scandal may head to Seoul

Nov 19, 2015, 7:43 AM EST
(Photo of Bartomeu Marí via Wikipedia)
(Photo of Bartomeu Marí via Wikipedia)

A former Barcelona museum director who stepped down from his post following a censorship scandal in March is now up for a job to direct South Korea’s National Museum of Contemporary Art, according to the Korean newspaper Kyunghyang Shinmun. More than 500 people, including internationally famous artists like Kim Beom and Koo Jeong-a, have signed a letter posted last week on Facebookquestioning the grounds to appoint the candidate, Bartomeu Marí.

Their concern stems from an incident in March, when Marí cancelled the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA) exhibition “The Beast and the Sovereign” because it included a sculpture depicting a sodomized Juan Carlos I, the former Spanish monarch. Following his objection, Marí swiftly resigned; two curators who approved of the work by Austrian artist Ines Doujak were fired at the outgoing director’s request.

“We cannot help but raise suspicions on why the government is trying to appoint a figure who was, of all matters, at the center of a censorship scandal to fill the position of the director of an art museum, who should firmly secure the freedom of art,” read a November 12 statement issued by the South Korean arts community, reported the Korean news outlet.

“Whether the director of the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art is a Korean or a foreigner is not important,” another statement released November 13 noted. “However, the process of appointing the director has raised an ethical question, which should be considered before a professional evaluation.” The statement added: “We are deeply concerned that the appointment of Bartomeu Mari may go in line with the recent voluntary and involuntary censorship occurring in Korea’s public culture and arts agencies.”

This isn’t the first time the MACBA incident has incited controversy. Just last week, three museum directors resignedfrom Cimam (International Committee for Museums and Collections of Modern Art), an organization that monitors museums’ ethical duties — and where Marí serves as president — in response to his actions.

Marí is competing with two Korean candidates for the position in Seoul, according to the Korean Herald. The culture ministry plans to announce the final appointment later this month.

Here is a translation of an earlier letter posted November 11 on Facebook, titled “Our Position on the Appointment of the New Director of the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in South Korea”:

1. Bartomeu Marí, the prime candidate for the new director of the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) in South Korea, and the controversy over his censorship
According to press coverage quoting officials in the South Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism (MCST), Bartomeu Marí, who was previously the director of the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art (Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona; MACBA) and is currently the president of the International Committee for Museums and Collections of Modern Art (CiMAM) under the International Council of Museums (ICOM), appears to be the leading candidate for the directorship of the MMCA.
As has been widely publicized in the media, fierce debates on Marí’s censorship and ethical challenges as a curator are underway. Most recently, three board members of the CiMAM—Charles Esche (Director Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven), Vasıf Kortun (Director of Research and Programs, SALT, Istanbul), and Abdellah Karroum (Director of Mathaf, Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha)—resigned from the CiMAM board. In doing so, these three figures demanded Marí’s own resignation, declaring in their statement that his prior inappropriate and unethical decision to censor a politically sensitive artwork as the curator-director of the MACBA not only caused the CiMAM to lose credibility, but also violated curatorial and universal ethics. Over this course of events, voices in the international press highly critical of Marí’s censorship have spread throughout the global art world.
2. The political censorship of art and the destruction of artistic autonomy and freedom
In recent years, the South Korean government’s increasing censorship and bureaucratic restrictions have critically damaged every domestic cultural field. The frequency and number of instances involving restrictions on artistic freedom is nothing short of alarming. Several examples include: the Arts Council Korea (ARKO) not only pre-censoring plays for nuancing local sociopolitical issues, but also recently implementing blacklists and pre-exclusion in the jurying process for funding applications in the fields of theater and literature; the drastic and unwarranted cut in government funding for the Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) for the screening of The Truth Shall Not Sink with [the] Sewol, a documentary on the truth behind the sinking of the ferry and the government’s incompetence, irresponsibility, and corruption regarding its attempts to rescue passengers from the tragically capsized MV Sewol; and the abrupt removal of a politically satirical artwork by Hong Sung-dam, a representative artist of the Minjung art movement, from the special exhibition celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Gwangju Biennale. In addition, the South Korean government’s bureaucratic restrictions have severely undermined the fundamental artistic principles of professionalism, autonomy, and immediacy that form the inherent foundation of art practice the world over. In fact, both the government’s funding system and its public organs have ceaselessly worked to “tame” artists in the most anti-artist ways possible, placing administration at all times before creativity and freedom.
3. Over 600 petition signatures from artists, curators, and other figures in the art field collected in a single day
Artists, curators, and other figures in the art field who are extremely concerned about the above-described situation have issued the statement, “Our Position on the Appointment of the New Director of the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in South Korea.” We began to gather signatures online at 1:00 AM on November 10, 2015, and approximately 400 people had participated by 2:00 PM on November 11, 2015. The signature campaign is still underway; as of November 13, 2015, over 650 people have joined the petition. The number of participants continues to grow steadily.
4. Sharing our sense of the grave crisis reflected in the current situation
This is the first time that figures from the South Korean art community have collectively spoken out on the appointment of the director of the MMCA. Indeed, this particular issue reflects the public’s awareness of the worsening crisis involving the freedom of expression and art in South Korea in recent years. We demand that both the MMCA and its overseeing body, the MCST, offer plausible explanations regarding the appointment of the new MMCA director and institute full-fledged reforms to protect and foster artistic freedom so they may perform the duties they were originally intended as proponents of the arts. Until the resolution of the issues outlined above, we will continue to take action, and will issue another series of statements to follow this initial statement.

— Noelle Bodick (@nbodick)

(Photo of Bartomeu Marí via Wikipedia)