An Inside Look at Art Museums in South Korea

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choi wookkyung untitled, 1968

An art piece from Choi Wookkyung, Untitled, 1968. Possibly in Kukje Gallery

Art, in the general term, is something so widely spread across the world. Yet, it is still very unique to the nation it comes from. Pieces from the same genre or the same era will look vastly different from country to country because of the history that runs deep throughout art. Of course, this is the same in South Korea. The art that South Korean museums have and the art that South Korean artists make are distinctive to their own culture and their own history. That’s why I feel it’s necessary to create a list of some really good art museums in Seoul, South Korea and a few artists you can expect to see in them.

Art in South Korea

Firstly, it would probably be best to talk about how art is perceived throughout South Korea.

I found that the general reaction to art in South Korea was positive. However, the reaction to Korean artists is grander on the international scale. Many Korean artists have found their way across the world, having a piece being shown in multiple different countries.

Although, this isn’t to say that they’re not loved in South Korea, too. But, it’s great to know that they hold such a strong connection with international locations as well.

Art Museums in South Korea

Art museums in South Korea have a lot more to them than the art they show—or the exhibitions they put on. I realized this when some started to be called more than just their name.

For example, a museum I will go into more detail about later has a very distinct reputation because of the art piece they’ve placed on their rooftop—it’s called Walking Woman on the Roof, a piece by American artist Jonathan Borofsky.

Seoul Museum of Art (SeMA)

While looking for popular art museums, SeMA is one museum that’s always mentioned. It sticks mostly to contemporary art pieces—whether those are paintings, photography, or sculptures—but it does this in a way that is very close to home. Many of the pieces you see on their Collection page of their website are made by Korean artists who are especially trying to keep their culture within their art.

Opening in 2002, SeMA quickly became popular for its professionalism, its education, and the art it holds. It has a public viewing area, that you can attend for free. However, it does hold a lot of separate exhibits throughout the year, which each have their own admission fee in order to attend.

art museums in south korea seoul museum of art

Hours of Operation: Usually, this museum is open from 10am to 7pm or 10am to 6pm (depending on the day of the week and the season). Special exhibits will be at different dates and different times, so make sure you check out their website for more details.

Location: 43 Insa-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul, South Korea

Admission Fee: Mostly free, only need to pay to attend the separate exhibitions they hold year-round.

National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Seoul (MMCA)

As the name tells, this museum focuses heavily on modern and contemporary art styles. The MMCA has a total of four different branches throughout Korea: Gwacheon, Seoul, Deoksugung, and Cheongju.

The Seoul branch of the MMCA opened in 2013 with the idea of being the museum in the city. It focuses on bringing the Korean culture (specifically in cities) to international and Korean visitors alike. There are various types of arts here and there are also different kinds of shows being presented—whether those are art shows for one (or many) artist(s) or an education program where they teach people about the art around them. There’s a little bit of everything in this museum, so it makes sense as to why it’s one of the more popular ones.

art museums in south korea national museum of modern and contemporary art seoul

Hours of Operation: 10am-6pm on most days (Check their website for specific exhibitions and seasonal time changes)

Location: 30 Samcheong-ro, Sogyeok-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul 03062

Admission Fee: 4,000 KRW (or: just below $3.50). There are certain people who they allow in for free (for example, people under the age of 24 and over the age of 65), so check their website here to see if you fit in one of the requirements for free ticketing.

Arario Museum

Though the Arario Museum is a bit smaller than the other mentioned museums, it’s just as wonderful to go see. With a focus on contemporary art, Arario museum was constructed by an architect, Kim Swoogeun, in 1971. It became quite popular from the art work it presented.

To this day, people still wander through this museum with a sense of amazement. It’s all art—from the paintings, sculptures, and photographs to the actual building itself, there’s nothing else quite like it.

art museum in south korea arario museum

Hours of Operation: 10am-7pm. Closed on Sundays.

Location: 83, Yulgok-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul, Korea 03058

Admission Fee: Adults (15,000 KRW — about $12.50), Youth (age 14+, 9,000 KRW — about $7.50), and Children (ages 11-13, 6,000 KRW — about $5.00)

*Warning: children under the age of 10 are not allowed into the museum because of the limited and possibly dangerous space (for young children) of the museum.

Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art

Next, Leeum is another museum that strikes people with the Korean culture. Unlike the other museums mentioned before, this museum has a whole section dedicated to traditional Korean art (while also having modern and contemporary pieces).

Since its opening in 2004, Leeum has become one of the more distinguished museums of South Korea. Its popularity grew rapidly from its popular activities, accomplishments, and largescale exhibitions with famous artists.

To make things even more unique, Leeum is separate into a few different buildings. Each holds their own specific art pieces and each will certainly bring about different parts of the Korean culture.

They offer guided tours or digital guides. There are also, like the other museums, many different exhibitions that they put on throughout the year. So be sure to check out their website for more information.

(Fun fact: the name Leeum comes from the combination of “Lee”—which is the family name of the Founder of Samsung—and the “um” from the word “museum”)

art museums in south korea leeum samsung museum of art

located

Hours of Operation: 10:30am-6pm. Closed on Mondays.

Location: 60-16 Itaewon-ro 55-gil, Yongsan-gu, Seoul, Korea 04348

Admission Fee: Adult (10,000 KRW — about $8.50) Discount (5,000 KRW — about $4.15)

Kukje Gallery

Like mentioned earlier, Kukje Gallery is pretty famous for the art piece that sits on its rooftop. However, it also has credit for spreading Korean artists to other countries and bringing a lot of international artists to those of Korea. It works to show the most current and significant artists in the art world.

To help spread Korean artists’ work, Kukje Gallery participates in multiple fairs across the world. This has helped bring attention to Korean art as a whole.

Primarily, though, this museum focuses on contemporary art. They have many famous works of artists who we’ve heard of at least once in our life time. (My own personal favorite artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat, has an art piece in this museum.)

art museums in south korea kukje gallery

Hours of Operation: 10am-6pm Monday-Saturday and 10am-5pm on Sunday and Holidays

Location: 54 Samcheong-ro, Jongno-gu Seoul, 03053 Korea

Admission Fee: Unsure, could not find any ticket pricing on their website

A Few Korean Artists to see at the Art Museums in South Korea

Just like their unique art museums, South Korea has just as extraordinary artists. There’s grand artists who’ve been all across the world and there’s also been artists, equally as great, who haven’t left their roots in South Korea.

Of course, art is a very opinionated style. What one will like, another might not. So, for this list, I tried to choose varying styles of artists while also sticking to artists that had work I enjoyed.

Lee Bul (1964-present)

This amazing artist creates works of contemporary sculpture and installation that will honestly blow your mind. She tackles heavy topics within her art, questioning the way society runs at times while also creating a unique atmosphere. She has artworks in museums all across the world.

But, she does have a couple pieces on display in two of the museums mentioned earlier.

Bells from the Deep, 2014 – Currently on display at Leeum

lee bul bells from the deep artwork

Cyborg W5, 1999 – Currently on display at MMCA

lee bul cyborg w5

Kim Soohyun (1979-present)

As a photography fanatic, I fell in love with Kim Soohyun’s work rather easily. On his website, he has many of his works just sitting there for you to go through. It’s real, it’s raw, and it’s beautiful. Many of Kim’s works detail the natural world, showing what life is like without anything too specifically beautiful in it.

If I’m understanding the website correctly, he does have one piece (or a small amount of pieces of the same theme) on display in one of the museums mentioned.

Post Office, Chicago, 2012 – Possibly on display at SeMA

kim soohyun post office photography

Paik Namjune (1932-2006)

Paik Namjun is an exceptional artist, binding together art forms of all kinds in order to create something so inherently unique. He was heavily influential in the art scene, too. In fact, he was credited with being the first artist to use video art in 1974 (he’s credited with being the founder of video art because of this).

While many of his pieces are being shown around the world, a couple of them are currently at some of the museums I mentioned in Seoul.

My Faust-Communication, 1989-1991 – Currently on display at Leeum

paik namjune my fast communication

Part of the exhibition at Arario

This particular art piece in the exhibition is not named on their website. However,  on the list of artists that are being shown, Paik’s name is mentioned. 

Choi Wookkyung (1940-1985)

If you enjoy beautiful paintings, then Choi Wookkyung is definitely an artist you should check out. His paintings are hard to explain, but they’re stylistically gorgeous. They have bold lines, smears of colors, and truly hold that contemporary style that you can’t help but to love.

Though a bit abstract, Choi’s work has its own unique voice and character that you couldn’t find anywhere else.

This Is What You See, 1975 – Possibly on display at Kukje Gallery

choi wookkyung artwork this is what you see

What to do now after learning about these art museums in South Korea

Simple, go visit them!

Or, if you can’t, do a bit more research on them to see if they’re really what you want to see. There are tons of art museums in South Korea, a large amount in Seoul alone. Hopefully, this helped bring about some really great ones to visit.

For anything else relating to travel in South Korea, check out our travel page!

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