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'Snap and share’: The rise of new museumgoers

More young Koreans visit photogenic art exhibitions to digitize cultural, artistic experience on social media

By No Kyung-min

Published : Sept. 5, 2023 - 16:19

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A visitor to Frieze Seoul takes a photo of an art installation at Coex in southern Seoul, Sept. 2, 2022. (Newsis) A visitor to Frieze Seoul takes a photo of an art installation at Coex in southern Seoul, Sept. 2, 2022. (Newsis)

Browsing through a collection of photographs on his smartphone, Kim, a 28-year-old Seoul resident, fondly revisited moments from a recent art exhibition.

Before long, some of these digitized memories would find their place on his social media profile, joining the stream of posts from young South Koreans eager to flaunt their recent museum adventures online.

“This customary practice of taking artsy photos has taken root fairly recently, ever since I came across my friend’s online posts showing intriguing artwork,” Kim told The Korea Herald.

"More than just appreciating art, being photographed alongside these installations within the same frame makes me feel like I am an active participant,” he added.

Young museumgoers like Kim are emerging as a powerful force in the Korean arts scene, changing the way art is perceived, consumed and appreciated.

Maurizio Cattelan's artwork, Maurizio Cattelan's artwork, "Comedian," at the Leeum Museum of Art (Newsis)

The 'MZ effect'

The “MZ effect” in the art scene is most evident in museum attendance numbers.

The National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea in Seoul, logged a whopping 930,000 visitors to its "Little Ark" exhibition, which ran for five months to Feb. 26. It showcased kinetic and mechanical artworks by local installation artist Choe U-Ram.

In South Korea, an art exhibition is considered a blockbuster when it achieves 100,000 visitors.

Chae Ji-yeon, an official from MMCA Seoul, attributed the massive success of Choe’s exhibition to younger generations' yearning for novel artistic experiences. In Korea, the "MZ generation" is a grouping of millennials and Generation Z, together encompassing those born from the early 1980s to mid 2010s.

Social media, in particular, has proved to be a great means of making exhibits go viral, as young Koreans have continued to share photogenic content across digital realms.

“Diverse forms of social media posts, such as Instagram reels and stories, effectively helped deliver the artwork’s captivating and intuitive qualities,” the official said.

Kim Min-joo from MMCA’s social media team highlighted their proactive use of social media in recent years.

“We have actively expanded MMCA’s accessibility by shoring up its digital presence across social media platforms, aligning with the growing number of young Koreans in the social media landscape,” she told The Korea Herald.

Data from the MMCA indicated that the MZ generation constituted 63 percent of total museum visitors across three MMCA branches -- Seoul, Cheongju in North Chungcheong Province and Gwacheon, Gyeonggi Province -- in the first half of this year.

In 2019, the combined share of 20-something and 30-something visitors at the three MMCA branches plus its Deoksugung location totaled 47 percent.

A look at visitor data at the Seoul branch this year reveals that those in their 30s accounted for nearly half of the visitors at 49 percent, while those in their 20s took up 23 percent.

Another exhibition that felt the impact of social media to a great extent this year was the solo showcase of Italian conceptual artist Maurizio Cattelan, held at the Leeum Museum of Art in Yongsan, Seoul, from Jan. 31 to July 16.

The exhibition garnered about 250,000 visitors, the highest attendance the private museum has ever recorded. Of the visitors, 28 percent were in their 20s, with 24 percent in their 30s.

“The exhibition’s appeal lied in allowing visitors to move around freely and take photos with a wide array of uniquely styled art installations,” said Yang, in his 20s, who attended the exhibit. “Being able to encounter quirky life-size sculptures blended well with solid-color walls and floors made the artwork more engaging and instagrammable.”

Another visitor to the Cattelan exhibit, Lee, also in her 20s, said it was so popular among young museumgoers that she "failed to book tickets several times as only a limited number of people were allowed at each hourly time slot.”

Young art lovers interviewed said they now look forward to Frieze Seoul, the second collaboration between the international art fair and Korea's leading art fair, Kiaf Seoul, which opens Wednesday and continues through the weekend.

Last year, their first joint art fair garnered the attendance of more than 70,000 visitors, with nearly half of them estimated to be in their 20s and 30s.

"Soir Bleu" by Edward Hopper on display at “Edward Hopper: From City to Coast” at Seoul Museum of Art (Newsis)

Artsy photos, a quest for online validation?

The Seoul Museum of Art's exhibition of American realist painter Edward Hopper was another hit among millennials and Gen Z, running four months from April 20 to Aug. 20.

Among the exhibition’s 330,000 visitors was Kim Dong-eun, in his early 30s.

"I learned about Hopper's exhibition in Korea through my friends' social media posts and other art-related promotional accounts,” Kim said. “I wanted to go to the exhibition to view paintings and take photos and share them online myself."

Despite the MZ-led boost in the attendance, however, the museum remained cautious not to let the exhibition be overshadowed by the fervent social media trend.

While many exhibitions nowadays designate photo zones where visitors are encouraged to take pictures and share them online or allow visitors to take photos, taking photos was banned in two of the three exhibition at SeMA.

A researcher at SeMA explained the rationale behind prohibiting photography, saying, “As we learned of the growing trend of sharing photos from art exhibitions on social media, we made the decision to encourage visitors to focus more on the artworks themselves.”

Some say the young generations' desire for validation and recognition is driving the new art frenzy among the youth, for whom art is no longer something to be observed alone silently, but to be experienced and shared.

Kwak Keum-joo, a professor of psychology at Seoul National University, said that people are not only finding joy in sharing new information with others, but also in “relishing a sense of cultural superiority deriving from the act of sharing and proving their cultivated presence online.”

"Becoming cultured and discovering new activities through social media can undoubtedly enhance one's cultural knowledge, fostering a sense of security and connection as part of the mainstream culture," she said. "However, an issue arises when there's a dissonance between one's online persona and real-life self, … museum visits are solely driven by the need to prove one's cultural presence rather than engaging in actual cultural experiences."

"Little Ark" by Choe U-ram on display at MMCA, Seoul (Newsis)