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May 31 2021

Sunjung Kim Out From Gwangju Biennale Foundation

by Chloe Morrissey

* last updated Wednesday, June 23

Portrait of SUNJUNG KIM. Image via Instagram.

On May 27, the city of Gwangju announced that the Gwangju Biennale Foundation president of the last four years, Sunjung Kim, will be replaced after the expiration of her contract at the end of June. The news comes following a labor dispute between Kim and the Gwangju Biennale Labor Union. The Foundation will form a committee to search for a new director to lead South Korea’s most important international art biennale.

On April 26, two weeks before the festival closed, the Gwangju Biennale Labor Union released a statement accusing Kim of labor and verbal abuse and unfair dismissal. According to the statement, the essence of these problems lies in gapjil—a Korean term for the arrogant behavior of a superior—as well as ignorance of labor law in personnel measures, and the privatization of the foundation. The incident is currently under investigation by the city government of Gwangju, and the case is yet to be finalized. The Union also filed complaints to the Anti-Corruption and Civil Rights Commission and the National Human Rights Commission. Kim denies any wrongdoing.

A union official told Jeonnam Ilbo, “Contrary to the international reputation of Gwangju Biennale, the staff has been suffering from the president’s lack of leadership, the lack of principles and transparency in operations, as well as the abandonment of duty and abuse of authority by the head of the HR team.” Before the investigation began, the former chairman of the Union, who was also the leader of the exhibition team, claimed he had been harassed both inside and outside of the Foundation for statements against Kim’s leadership. This led to his resignation on May 1, which was followed by the departure of another union member on May 5. Both were immediately removed from the office on the days of their resignation.

Kim was appointed as president in 2017 after acting as co-curator for the ninth Gwangju Biennale in 2012, and the commissioner of the Korean Pavilion at the 2005 Venice Biennale. During her tenure, Kim was the chief curator of the 2018 Gwangju Biennale, “Imagined Borders,” before working with international artistic directors Defne Ayas and Natasha Ginwala for the latest edition, “Minds Rising, Spirits Tuning,” which opened in April after being postponed from September 2020 because of the pandemic.

Moving forward, the Gwangju Biennale Foundation plans to assemble a committee to determine the appointment of the Biennale’s next president, through two methods of selection, which could include a direct nomination from the Gwangju mayor and Foundation chairman, Lee Yong-seop, or an external public body. Commenting on the recruitment to the news agency Newsis, the head of Gwangju’s Culture, Sports, and Tourism Office, Kim Joon-young, stated, “The appointment of the next representative will be transparent, fair, and objective.”

*Correction: The headline of this article was updated to reflect that Ms. Kim and the Gwangju Biennale Foundation maintain that she left her position voluntarily at the end of her term.

Chloe Morrissey is an editorial intern at ArtAsiaPacific.

To read more of ArtAsiaPacific’s articles, check out our Digital Library.

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