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Art meets social venture

Art meets social venture

Culture Circus seeks healthy business model linking locals, arts and storytelling

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Published : 2013-12-06 20:39
Updated : 2013-12-06 20:39

“Sagan-dong Project: Hands” was held at Gallery White Birch in Sagan-dong, central Seoul, from Nov. 13-17.
(Culture Circus)
From Nov. 13-17 at a small gallery in Sagan-dong, a rather quiet area in central Seoul, a very different yet unique exhibition was held.

Under the theme of “Hands,” four artists specializing in different forms ― ceramics, timepieces, handbags and dolls ― featured their products ranging from mugs and bowls to eco-friendly purses, handmade watches and ceramic dolls.

The stories about the neighborhood were written on the wall. Sagan-dong was named after the librarians and royal historians that recorded the everyday lives of the king and royalty, and the area recently transformed into a luxurious art gallery cluster. Also on display were video images of the artists’ “hands” making the art products and people gushing about Sagan-dong.

On Nov. 16, people were invited to share lunch and dinner with local artists and residents, discussing ideas about life and arts over food and wine.

“The whole point of our exhibition was to look into Sagan-dong, which obviously has a lot to tell, and its people,” said Lee Cho-rog, one of the founding members of Culture Circus, the organizer of the event.

“We wanted to bring a breath of fresh air to the local scene by linking artists with their neighbors and perhaps discover potential clients from the outside world. We are actively linking local culture with business, but not in a blunt way,” she said.

The organizer concluded that “Sagan-dong Project: Hands” was a success. Many of the exhibited items were sold while Culture Circus brand candles and postcards almost sold out. Local artists offered collaboration by selling postcards, candles and other Culture Circus merchandise in return for holding more projects in the rather exclusive and conservative neighborhood.

Discovering space, people and culture

Culture Circus was founded by 34-year-old Lee Cho-rog, a former brand manager of a large company; 27-year-old architect Kwon Da-young; and 31-year-old architect Kim Good-kan, and aims to bring space, people and culture together.

The founding members of Culture Circus are Kim Good-kan (left), Kwon Da-young (center) and Lee Cho-rog (right), who met through a social spacing project. (Culture Circus)
It started with a small group of architects and their supporters, CPUS, focusing on open spaces in Korean neighborhoods.

The members painted a parking lot in northern Seoul and cleaned up a dusty field in western Seoul. Then, some of the members established Culture Circus, a for-profit business focusing on not only the space but also the story, people and culture. While Culture Circus is run by the three, it gathers volunteers on a project basis.

For “Sagan-dong Project: Hands,” Culture Circus visited all the artists and their workshops in the area and convinced them to participate in the exhibition. They created a booklet about the project and developed several merchandise items to promote their work. It won a 20 million won ($18,900) grant from SEEDS, a nongovernmental organization that supports start-ups in collaboration with the Ministry of Employment and Labor.

“Culture Circus was different from others because they were able to mix different stories with people surrounding a specific spot in the city,” said Choi Seung-yeon, a staff member at SEEDS and mentor of Culture Circus.

Finding sweet spot

There is a definite need for Culture Circus to find a “sweet spot” or sustainable business model. In fact, it is a problem for all social enterprises which prioritize improvements in human and environmental well-being over boosting profit, industry experts said.

According to the Korea Social Enterprise Promotion Agency, there are some 950 social enterprises here, and a considerable number of them are in the cultural field, mainly for the welfare of artists or revitalization of the local art scene.

Merchandising products and receiving commission for exhibition and sponsorship were the main source of profit for Culture Circus’ Sagan-dong project.

But all members agreed that further development is needed.

“I wanted to prove that our start-up is more than an intriguing hobby. I also want to show the world that this could make a living,” Kwon said.

At the moment, securing new projects is the most feasible business plan.

The company has embarked on another project focusing on improving Yangpyeong-dong of western Seoul, which has recently emerged as a “happening place” among youngsters.

“We are planning to transform underground rooms of residential areas into open workshops for local artists, who will be able see the benefits due to the cheap rent in the area. Workshops and exhibitions for the locals will bring people closer to art and culture. I believe that Yangpyeong will build up its own unique culture with open space and people,” Lee said, adding that they are receiving similar proposals from other spaces and galleries.

“I know we might fail. People constantly frighten us (by saying) that we will. They tell us what’s wrong and what’s right. But even if we do fail, I don’t care. I know we are all learning. We already have,” Kwon said.

By Bae Ji-sook (

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