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U.S. museum hires Korean curator

Sun Seung-hye hopes to build cultural bridges
Jan 12,2010
Curator Sun Seung-hye. By Kim Jae-yoon
The new east wing of the Cleveland Museum of Art, designed by Rafael Vinoly Architects, opened to the public in June 2009. The structure is part of a large renovation and expansion project slated for completion in 2012. By Brad Feinknopf
Last week, the Cleveland Museum of Art announced it had appointed Sun Seung-hye as the new associate curator of its renowned Japanese and Korean collections. The position had been empty since 2005, when the Asian collection was removed from public view due to a large-scale renovation and expansion project.

A graduate of Seoul National University, Sun served as curator at the National Museum of Korea from 2002 to 2008. She specializes in comparative research on East Asian art history.

Over the weekend, the JoongAng Daily talked via e-mail with Sun, who is now in Japan working on her doctoral degree in Japanese art at the University of Tokyo.

Cleveland is not as well known in the art world as say, New York or Paris, but Sun says the collection of Japanese and Korean art at the Cleveland Museum of Art is one of the best of those in Western countries. For her, the city is the perfect place to fulfill what she says is her lifelong mission to build a lasting cultural bridge between Korea and the West, as well as between Korea and Japan.

The relationship between Cleveland and Korea is not a new one, Sun said. Cleveland is the hometown of Louis H. Severance (1838-1913), who with his family raised money to build Severance Hospital - the first modern hospital in Korea - in Seoul in 1904. By taking the position at the Cleveland museum, Sun says she’s just building on the ties already established between the two places - except in an artistic way.

Q. The Cleveland Museum of Art claims to have demonstrated a keen interest in Asian art, collecting aggressively even before its first building was completed in 1916. Based on your experience, is it common for a Western museum to invest in Asian art?

A. As far as I know, Western museums have long been fascinated by Asian art and culture.

Also, museums in the West often serve as educational centers. For museums such as these, an investment in Asian art and culture will definitely be beneficial to their national and individual interests.

The U.S. is a young, rich country. They don’t have large collections as many European museums do, but they have the money to buy what they need to educate the U.S. public.

The great scholar Dr. Sherman Lee (1918-2008) arrived at the Cleveland Museum of Art in 1952 as its curator of Oriental art and was the museum director from 1958 to 1983. He played a leading role in the research and acquisition of Asian art. He hosted the exhibition “Five Thousand Years of Korean Art” in 1980, as well as many outstanding exhibitions of Japanese art. Because of my admiration for Dr. Lee, I have long had a special feeling for the CMA.

The Cleveland Museum of Art is known to have a vast collection of Asian art - some 4,000 objects from Japan, Korea, India, the Himalayas, Southeast Asia, China and Tibet. What would you say are the strengths of the collection? What could be improved?

The collection of Japanese art at the CMA has gained international recognition. In particular, the Japanese paintings and Buddhist artworks are stunning.

There is room for improvement in the Korean collection. I would like to fill the Korean and Japanese collections with more rare masterpieces. With a larger, richer collection, I hope to open American hearts and minds to Asian people and their cultures.

Just how popular, viable or marketable is Asian art in the U.S. art scene?

Well, I would say Asian art is becoming more popular almost every day. Asian art and culture is no different in this regard from Asian language, economy, politics and, yes, food. I’m especially impressed that so many museums in the U.S. have hired curators who specialize in Korean art, in addition to those who specialize in Chinese and Japanese art.

I believe I’ll arrive in the U.S. at the best time to further my goal and mission to create mutual understanding between different art forms, people, cultures and countries.

It appears your appointment has come at a crucial time, as the museum is in the midst of the largest renovation and expansion project in its history.

Yes, it will be very challenging to be the curator of Korean and Japanese art at the CMA at this point.

The museum embarked on a multi-year project to renovate, expand and re-imagine the museum, employing world-renowned architect Rafael Vinoly.

With the renovation and expansion project, the museum is scheduled to reopen the galleries focused on Korean and Japanese art in 2013.

It is a rare opportunity, and I hope to provide a reinterpretation of Korean and Japanese art from a new perspective and bridge these two countries.

By Kim Hyung-eun [hkim@joongang.co.kr]