California Arts Council

State of California

Understanding Korean Art
Bridging artistic understanding between cultures is a San Francisco-based curator's great wish

Published: 08-27-2008

Across from the San Francisco Civic Center is a European-style building that catches the eye because of its size and grandiose design of marble and Greco-Roman columns. The building was formerly the San Francisco City Library, which moved down the block in the mid-1990s, and now houses thousands of oriental objects inside that don't match the occidental exterior. This special harmonized building is a special gateway to Asia for Californians: the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.

The Museum has one of the most comprehensive collections of Asian art in the world, with approximately 17,000 works of art and crafts from Asian countries and traditions. Displays are devoted to the arts of China, India, Japan, Persia (now encompassing the territory of Iran and considered "Western Asia" by curators), and other parts of Asia and the classical Oriental world. The Museum's Korean collection--considered the best in the world outside Korea by many experts--is currently administered by the watchful eye of Cheeyun Kwon.

Ms. Kwon's overarching goal as the Korean collection curator is to help build a bridge of understanding Korea for U.S. and California citizens. She grew up in various European countries because of the international nature of her father's business. Her junior high and high school years in Europe were rich with European art and culture. She attended Wellesley College in the U.S. and majored in art history, but noticed something in her studies that she found disturbing.

"'Why isn't there a Korean art history class or major, independent of another class or focus?" she asked rhetorically about her experience at Wellesley. "My professors always mentioned Korean art history in the briefest of terms, and only in the middle of Chinese and Japanese art history classes."

She didn't give up on her interest in the arts of Korea, and spent summers in her home country studying the arts of Korea. The trips were expensive and time-consuming, but what was even more disheartening to her was that she had to travel to Korea in order to learn about Korean art history. There just wasn't the information provided in the U.S. to any degree. 

Her interest in Korean art history soon turned into a lifelong mission. "I decided to go to graduate school and study more. I really wanted to inform westerners about unique and distinct--but unknown--Korean art history in the English-speaking world."

Ms. Kwon notes that westerners divide Asia--the biggest continent in terms of both size and population--into areas that may not reflect the actual cultural differences between regions. China, Japan, and Korea are lumped together as "East Asia," even though each country has its own unique, distinct, and visible differences and characteristics. And when studying "East Asian" art, there is little to no detail on Korea. Instead, Korean art is more of an afterthought or side-note, with the major emphasis on China and Japan. But Korean art is very different than artwork from these other two Asian regions, she said.

"Korean art is more impromptu, simple, and grounded on naturalism," said Ms. Kwon. "These are the main characteristics of artwork from the Joseon Dynasty period," speaking of the era that started in approximately the late 1300s and lasted to the 1910 Japanese occupation. "Before that, during the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392), art was very aristocratic and sophisticated. There are very strong and distinct visible differences in each era, which make Korean art history different than Chinese or Japanese studies."

Exploring the unique and distinct features and sharing them with Americans is her mission as a Korean collection curator--one she does with great joy. But it took years of hard work. As a graduate student from Princeton University she travelled to Korea and Japan constantly to collect data because there was no information in the United States. She found herself the lone Korean art history graduate student at Princeton, surrounded by students focusing on China and Japan.

"It's almost impossible to collect Korean Buddhist paintings in the United States, for example," she said. "Most Korean Buddhist paintings are in temples and not open to public display. So I met with Buddhist monks and asked them to let me view the paintings and take pictures. It was very difficult," recalled Ms. Kwon.

She eventually received her Ph.D. for her published work about the nationality of an unidentified Buddhist painting kept by the Seikado library in Japan--after 10 years of work. The subject of her doctoral focus was controversial; many Asia art history scholars debated whether the Buddhist painting, "Ten Kings," was Chinese or Korean. Through research and documentation, she proved the painting was Korean, and her arguments and evidence were so compelling that she persuaded Chinese evaluators. Her published dissertation was possibly the first in the U.S.with a focus solely on a Korean art subject, she said.

After graduating, Ms. Kwon spent years in Korea as a collection curator and returned to the U.S. in 2007 to work with the Asian Art Museum. The majority of the collection at the museum is of Chinese origin, but the portion of Korean work is getting bigger. When first initiated, the Korean collection had only 200 pieces, but now contains 750 pieces and is growing. The quality of the collection is also improving brilliantly, she said.

"It is very difficult to collect works of traditional Korean art and art crafts. They are very small in number, and most of them are spread out in other countries because of the frequent foreign invasions of Korea," she said.

But she is optimistic about the future of the collection, and of Korean art in the U.S. in general. "In the past 20 years, the international status of Korea has risen, and more Americans and Europeans are getting interested in Korean art. The scale of the market is getting bigger each year. And the scale of Korean art collection of the museum will be grow as well."

The Korean gallery has an emphasis on the historical arts of Korea, but a modern collection is growing, and the museum recently held an exhibition of modern Korean artwork. "Korean modern art harmonizes with the traditional art, and at the same time it is very dynamic," she said. "I want to introduce not only the characteristics of traditional one but also the modern one like that to America society."

Interested in Korean art and the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco? Look for the Hanbok (Korean traditional costume) exhibition at the Museum this fall, featuring beautiful designs and traditional wedding ceremony. If interested in supporting the exhibit, contact the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco at 200 Larkin St, San Francisco, CA 94102. Telephone: (415) 581-3500,


This article was reported by California Arts Council intern Hyemi Shin, a student at the University of California-Irvine, and edited by Mary Beth Barber, Communications Director at the California Arts Council.

The California Arts Council considers profiles and articles about grantees and important stories on the arts in California for its website and eNewsletter California Artbeat. Have an idea or would like to contribute an article? Contact Mary Beth at

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