ARAD Works: “Gentrification and Art in Seoul”

Screen shot 2016-02-01 at 3.10.50 AMHaving recently completed her master’s thesis, Erica Hyeyeon Chang shares some insight into her topic and her writing process.

Gentrification and Art in Seoul: the End of Neighborhood-Specific Arts Ecology
By Erica Hyeyeon Chang

What is your thesis about? My thesis is on gentrification and art in Seoul, South Korea and how arts administrators strategize around the gentrification processes.

As the city continues to develop and redevelop, the more traditional arts and cultural districts were gentrified and commercialized, thus displacing small arts organizations. This led the arts organizations to “spill over” and congregate in the surrounding lower-rent neighborhoods, but the same culture-led gentrification processes took place again as the rent increased.

Seoul is now witnessing decentralization of its arts and cultural landscape. Arts organizations’ priorities in selecting their geographical location have changed from being in a distinctively arts and cultural region to simple affordability. Arts organizations are decreasingly identifying themselves with their neighborhoods. Some in fact believe the art world is no longer site-specific.

My thesis unveils the historical trajectory leading to the current stage, social and global contexts, and Korean arts administrators’ entrepreneurial ways to address challenges and opportunities presented by gentrification.

What inspired you to research and write about this topic? As a long-time international student, I have always visited home in Seoul during summer and/or winter break. In every visit, I would see changes everywhere. What used to be a resorted avenue with street trees and small boutique stores and artist studios turned into a bustling, commercial street with large corporate-owned fashion brands and fancy restaurants. What used to be an old baseball stadium turned into one of Korea’s largest conference halls and hosts international fashion weeks. Every break, I witness how Seoul changes block-by-block.

The most notable change for me was the “abrupt” appearance and disappearance of arts spaces. Over summer break, I would see a small alternative exhibition space in this block, but when the winter break comes, it is no longer there. What seems abrupt to me is a gradual change for the local residents. Nevertheless, Seoul experiences gentrification at an incredibly fast pace.

Upon conducting some research and learning more about gentrification, I couldn’t find anything written on gentrification with the focus on arts organizations in Seoul. I took this as an opportunity to take advantage of my thesis requirement and study something that I deeply care about and fill the gap in research.

How do you hope your research will contribute to the arts administration field? I hope my research will ignite more questions about the Korean art world and the realities of gentrification in Seoul. As gentrification and the morphing arts ecology in Seoul are still a very hotly debated topic and an ambivalent notion, I simply wished to capture the current state of Seoul. 

In my paper, I hope I was able to aptly portray the arts administrators’ current thinking and decision-making processes. What do they identify as the problems and opportunities of gentrification? How do international scholars define gentrification and how is it perceived in Korea, especially by arts administrators?

By addressing such questions, I hope my paper was able to depict the very momentary diaspora and will be a point of reference for the other researchers who are interested in this topic, particularly in East Asian, post-colonial countries.

I also humbly hope that my thesis paper will contribute to creating more conversations between the Anglophone world and Korea in the arts administration field and shed more light on the dynamic Korean art world.

What advice would you give to ARAD students just beginning the process of writing their theses? Treat each chapter like a separate paper. When you sit down to write your thesis as a whole, it’s easier to get stuck because the workload seems too large. I simply didn’t know where to begin. So I decided to make a separate Word document for the each of the three main chapters in my thesis, and once I started to treat them as an individual, 10-page paper, it was easier for me to navigate my way around. Plus, 10 pages is the standard (if not shorter) length for almost every class at Columbia University, so it prepared my mind to set clearer goals and create short-term to-do lists that led me to achieve larger long-term goals. In the end of the thesis-writing phase, I interconnected the three separate “papers” as I integrated them into my thesis paper as a whole. 

Secondly, keep good track of your research. Organize your research materials so it’s easier to find when you need to refer to them. If an article refers to any other interesting resource, conduct a follow-up research to see if that resource’s author(s) has written any relevant information on your topic. I often found amazing resources in other authors’ bibliographies.

Also, make CLIO (Columbia University Libraries/Information Services) your new best friend. If you are writing your thesis about an international topic and if you speak the language, you can conduct research in many other languages. I researched in both English and Korean that gave me access to a wealth of resources, many of them from Korean universities and academic journals.

Was there anything surprising you learned about your topic by going through this process? The sheer amount of passion. My thesis interviewees are all directors of the organizations that they founded, and they simply breathe and live their organizations. One of them took on another job to fund his organization’s operation costs. One of them told me that he works quite literally 24/7. One of them had to move her organization three times in two years to find an affordable space.

However, when they were saying this to me, they were not complaining. Because they work with passion, they were exuberant with joy and pride. So when rent increases, arts organizations move; they don’t disappear. Arts administrators are equipped with entrepreneurial skills and start-up mindset that enable them to find ways to survive gentrification processes and make it work for them.

I was simply astonished by their dedication for their organizations and learned that it’s this kind of passion that is essential (and perhaps, needed more) in the art industry.

This infographic map is made by Yoonseo Chang.

Abstract: Post-war Korea experienced an immense economic development, which also quickly overhauled the urban environment in the country’s capital, Seoul. As the rapid commercialization and gentrification continue to take place in the city, the arts ecology is morphing as well. Arts organizations are increasingly displaced from well-established arts districts such as Hongik University Area and Samcheong Dong with increasing rent and are moving to various neighborhoods with lower rent. This process developed a pattern where the displaced small arts organizations congregate in a low-rent neighborhood and create a high-art environment, which then gets commercialized and gentrified again.

This paper focuses on two major arts and cultural districts, Hongik University and Samcheong Dong, as the points of origin of the evolving arts ecology in Seoul. Through research and personal interviews with arts administrators who had – at one point in their career – been affected by gentrification, this paper examines how gentrification impacts the arts and cultural landscape in Seoul and creates unforeseen dynamics. The main objective of this paper is to aptly capture the real strategies that arts administrators are adopting nowadays to cope with gentrification and connect the practices to both local and global academic theories and discussions around gentrification and art.

In light of the changing environment, this paper studies (1) how gentrification has unfolded in Seoul and has reshaped the city’s arts and cultural landscape; (2) how arts administrators have engaged with stakeholders involved with gentrification; and (3) how arts administrators have addressed the challenges and opportunities created by gentrification.

For access to the full paper, please contact the ARAD program at

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