There is a strangely entertaining—and much too close to home—television commercial for the Korando Sport SUV on the Korean airwaves these days. We are introduced to a young couple in the midst of a discussion regarding their weekend plans. “How about we go to a café, then a movie, and finish off with dinner?” the boyfriend suggests. “Or, better yet, we could start with a movie, then go to a café, and grab dinner?” We don’t get to hear his girlfriend’s response—but it could very well be because we’re too busy working out the few remaining iterations. (Could it be that dinner—movie—café is actually the winning combination?)
Give yourself a couple of hours, a few spare bills for ticketed exhibitions or a cup of coffee and a pair of decent shoes for this gallery hop.
Fortunately for us, Seoul is a city that offers infinitely more options than grilled meat, chick flicks, and tea lattes—that is, if you know where to look. A couple weeks ago, I deviated from my habitual wanderings through Insa-dong and found myself exploring the part of town just a little farther north. This particular corner of Jongno-gu (just south of Samcheong-dong Café Alley and a little west of Bukchon Hanok Village) is especially well-known for its numerous art centers and galleries, all of which boast a diverse collection of exhibitions throughout the year.
Make sure you give yourself a couple of hours, a few spare bills for ticketed exhibitions or a cup of coffee, and a pair of decent shoes (you’ll be on your feet for most of the time!) in order to check out some of my favorites. You’ll want to start by taking exit 1 at Anguk station on line 3 and taking your third right, as if you were heading to the National Folk Museum of Korea (민속박물관).
Gallery Hyundai (갤러리현대)
Not long after you turn right, you’ll stumble across Gallery Hyundai. One of the oldest galleries in the area, Gallery Hyundai first opened its doors in April 1970 and has now expanded into four separate venues—Main Space (본관), New Space (신관), 16 Bungee (16번지), and a separate gallery in Gangnam under the same name. The gallery prides itself on being one of the leading galleries of modern art (hyundai, or 현대, means “modern”). Gallery Hyundai will soon be hosting an exhibition of works by Michael Craig-Martin (starting March 16), an influential contemporary artist who is said to be the godfather of the Young British Artists. When coming from Anguk station, the first Gallery Hyundai building that will catch your eye is the Main Space (본관)—when you’re finished there, make sure you stop by the New Space (신관) just down the street. Although Gallery Hyundai may feel too mainstream for some, it was undoubtedly the most populated art space of the day (even though its exhibitions are often ticketed).
16 Bungee (16번지)
16 Bungee is a cozy three-floor gallery tucked away on a side street not far from Gallery Hyundai (take a right at Gallery On). The gallery itself is modest in every possible way, perhaps explaining why it proved to be my personal favorite: its small size (contrasted with the spacious window-like paintings currently on display by artist Kim Hyun Jung), its plain name (bungee, or 번지, is an address placeholder equivalent to “house number”; 16번지 is not only the name of the gallery, but also its address), and its off-the-main-streets location. 16 Bungee aims to showcase experimental and contemporary Korean art.
Hakgojae Gallery (학고재 學古齋)
Once you’re back on the main street, you’ll notice that Hakgojae Gallery immediately stands out from the surrounding galleries, at the very least from a visual standpoint. The gallery itself resembles a traditional-style Korean house (hanok, or 한옥) infused with elements of Western style. Most recently on display (until February 19) was an exhibition of 19th and 20th century ink and canvas paintings of orchids, bamboo, and Korean calligraphy (with the collection unsurprisingly titled “Orchid and Bamboo”). But don’t be fooled by this seemingly older style of art; Hakgojae places great emphasis on its philosophy of “creating things new by mastering things ancient” and also frequently showcases more modern exhibitions. Case in point: the current exhibition, “The virtue of design furniture” (through March 20) is a collection of ancient and modern design from around the world.
Kukje Gallery (국제갤러리)
Kukje Gallery may be one of the more popular destinations in the Jongno area, and the gallery’s tendency to present exhibitions introducing critically-acclaimed international artists renders it a “must-see.” During my most recent visit, the gallery was closed in preparation for its upcoming exhibitions—so make sure you time your visit accordingly (as is the case with any of the galleries in the area). Especially in light of the name of the gallery (kukje, or 국제, means “international”), it may not surprise you that the next two exhibitions feature the works of international artists (Eva Hesse from February 28 to April 7; Paul McCarthy from April 5 to May 12).
Gallery Chosun (갤러리조선)
After making your rounds at Kukje Gallery, you’ll want to retrace your steps until you’re back in front of Hakgojae Gallery—take an immediate left (and stay on the left side of the street). Gallery Chosun is a relatively small underground gallery that tends to feature younger Korean contemporary artists. Make sure to visit the front desk, which is neatly tucked away behind the wall facing the foot of the stairs, in order to pick up a paper copy of the exhibition layout (so that you can match the unmarked works of art with both their titles and creators).
Artsonje Center (아트선재센터)
What distinguishes the Artsonje Center from its neighbors is the fact that it is an art center, as opposed to an art gallery, boasting the “here and now” (as is the center’s philosophy). The geometric architecture is certainly a sight on its own (and make sure to check out views of the city from the top floor), but each floor of the Artsonje Center hosts its own feast for the senses. The first floor features an Indian restaurant, a café, and an art/book store. The second and third floors both house exhibition halls, while the basement is a performance space of sorts. There is, however, an entrance fee (1,500 won for students; 3,000 won for adults) and staff members on the exhibition floors waiting to check your ticket.
Arario Gallery (아라리오)
There are multiple Arario galleries in Seoul and surrounding areas (i.e., Cheonan), as well as in various prominent cities of the world (e.g., Beijing, New York City). As is the case with most other Jongno area galleries, Arario showcases contemporary and modern art, but with the underlying goal of sharing Korean art with other parts of the world. While the gallery itself is not large in size, most exhibitions that come through Arario are featured on both the first and second floors, which are connected by an outdoor staircase near the main entrance (so don’t leave without visiting both floors). Opening soon at Arario (starting March 22) is an exhibition titled “The Triumph of Daily Life” (일상생활의 승리) featuring the works of artist Kim Hanna, presented as a “fantasy narrative” through paintings, drawings, and sculpture.
You’ll find that most of the galleries in the area begin wrapping up for the day by sundown. If you’re hungry, head south towards Insa-dong for a bite to eat—or if a boost of caffeine sounds more like your cup of tea, head north towards Samcheong-dong Café Alley. Even strolling down the alleyway that is home to both the Artsonje Center and Arario (율곡로3길) on your way back to Anguk station will lead you to discover various offerings of staple street foods and quaint storefronts. The next time you find yourself pondering that trifecta of café–dinner–movie, try mixing up your routine with some or all of these galleries (see the walking tour map below). Bask in the silence of these spaces and curate your own visual experience as you wander through exhibitions and linger—or not—over the richness of Jongno’s art offerings.
Gallery Hyundai (Main Space)
Tuesday–Sunday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Jongno-gu, Sagan-dong 122
Tuesday–Sunday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Jongno-gu, Sagan-dong 16
Tuesday–Saturday 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Sunday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. (March – October)
Tuesday–Sunday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. (November – February)
Jongno-gu, Sogyeok-dong 70
Monday–Saturday: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sunday & National holidays: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Jongno-gu, Samcheong-ro 54
Tuesday–Sunday 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Jongno-gu, Sogyeok-dong 125
Tuesday–Sunday 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Jongno-gu, Sogyeok-dong 144-2
Tuesday–Sunday 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Jongno-gu, Sogyeok-dong 149-2