2012-12-10 00:41:07

In Koreatown, Building a Museum of Our Own

Image: A view of the L.A. city parking lot, at Vermont Avenue and Sixth Street, that will be the permanent site for the Korean American National Museum.

It was the evening of the Downtown Art Walk last November in Los Angeles — a once-a-month, self- guided crawl through the gentrifying city center — and several hundred people crowded into PYO Gallery LA, an off- shoot of the widely respected PYO Gallery in Seoul, to see “a celestial space,” a solo retrospective of the late Korean American artist Jin Ho Song, co-hosted with the Korean American Museum.

After a four-year exhibition hiatus, and a history of fits and starts, this gallery-museum collaboration marked the beginning of a new era. On Oct.1, KAM (Korean American Museum) signed a 55-year lease with the City of Los Angeles for a long-awaited permanent site at City Parking Lot No. 692, at the intersection of Vermont Avenue and Sixth Street in the heart of Los Angeles’s Koreatown.

“It’s long overdue,” said Dr. Kay Song, KAM Exhibition Committee chair and board member. “We want to build the first Korean American National Museum [to] feature our story— the Korean American story.”

With the new agreement in place, the museum will launch a $5 million fundraising campaign in the spring of 2013 in order to build a 45,000-square- foot, three-story cultural center, according to city documents. The museum has announced such campaigns in the past, but this one seems the most viable, with a site both predetermined and secured. The museum needs to start building within three years, or the land deal terms can change.

Plans include two exhibition halls, a community auditorium, activity rooms for arts education, a museum store, a rooftop garden and café. An open call for architects has been announced, and international inquiries are trickling in, some from Korean firms. A formal kickoff, likely a fundraising dinner, will be held next March, with hopes that this time, the museum will draw nation- wide attention and support. Museum officials say—though it’s unconfirmed and names aren’t being named—that $1 million has already been pledged.

The Korean American Experience

The Korean American Museum was founded as a historical society in 1991 and had its first exhibition, “Generations: Korean American Experience,” a black-and-white photo show at the Koreatown Plaza in 1994. Bolstered by the prominence of leading business people and community leaders on its board, KAM saw collaborations with the Korean Heritage Library at the University of Southern California; the Korean American Pioneer Council (the original descendants of the first wave of Koreans in Los Angeles); Radio Korea; and the short-lived Korean American Art Museum. The museum also partnered with several local schools in community arts education programs.

But by the early 2000s, programming began to slow. Over a six-year period, the museum moved four times—from two spots on Wilshire Boulevard to an office in the Wiltern Theatre, and its last home was an oft-shuttered room on the fourth floor of an office building on Sixth Street in Koreatown. Journalist K. Connie Kang wrote in a 2003 piece in the Los Angeles Times that “the museum, which opened with fanfare in 1995, has been inactive for years because of internal rifts and financial and staffing problems.”

Despite a well-received 2003 exhibit of Korean American contemporary art commemorating the centennial of Korean immigration to the U.S., the tanking of the economy in 2008 further deflated its sails. The museum’s last exhibition in 2008 was an extension of a 2006 exhibition, which itself was a repeat—or reinstallation—of a 2004 show.

Hong agrees, pointing out the importance of KAM’s mission “to preserve and interpret the history, experiences, culture and achievements of Americans of Korean ancestry.” During a period of mad construction in Koreatown in 2007 and 2008, KAM had the Photographers Society of Southern California run around and take pictures of buildings in the neighborhood before they were razed to make space for new multinational funded developments. It was a thoughtful historical documentation of our community. At that same time, KAM was working with the nonprofit Koreatown Youth and Community Center to teach art and photography to neighborhood youth. Today, the absence of arts programming in the community is felt viscerally.

“I’m so glad it’s finally going to happen,” Hong says. “I want to have the opportunity to cover Korean American artists and for students to have a space. The museum has the potential to be a great place for Korean Americans to learn about their history, community and culture, and to vividly express our experience for ourselves and for others.”

It’s been whispered that the new permanent site for the museum was procured as a peace token to the Koreatown community by L.A. Councilman Herb Wesson’s office. Wesson was, after all, the council president who oversaw (and some say finagled) the redistricting process that deprived Koreatown from being in one Asian-influenced council district. And it was Wesson’s pen at the signing ceremony this fall that inked the deal with the museum.

KAM program coordinator Irene Hong dismisses the rumors and would rather focus on the future. “It’s actually happening!” she says, relieved. “I’ve heard about this museum permanent site since I started this job in 2008, and even then, it had been in the works for years.”

The councilman defends his advocacy role in the community, having recently endorsed the new Korean Senior Center and a streetscape project that brought Korean-style gates and crosswalks to the neighborhood. He is particularly proud of his “strong support” in creating this new cultural institution in the city.

“It is said that you don’t know where you are going if you don’t know where you’ve been,” Wesson states. “So, this [museum] will especially benefit second-generation Korean Americans seeking to learn more of their unique heritage.”

Cindy Harlan, a Korean American pianist and mother of two, says she’s been long interested in taking her biracial kids to the museum, having heard of its traditional Korean music performances in the past.

“Because we do not have the church base that most Korean Americans have, I feel like I have to put in extra work providing Korean social and cultural exposure for our kids,” Harlan explains. “Events and exhibitions from the museum promoting themes dealing with their Korean roots and Korean American identity would be wonderfully educational for them.”

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