Seoul is a city like no other. I loved it the very moment I landed at Incheon Airport and it did not disappoint my expectations. The city itself is so rich and entertaining, that you can easily spend several days there and never get to do the same thing twice. It has it all – art, shopping, clubs, food, hikes, nature, posh neighborhoods, and student life. But when it comes to contemporary art, Seoul is a real gem. Before traveling there I was not aware of the huge variety of art-related museums, galleries and exhibition spaces the city has to offer. It was a real surprise, I have to admit it! And I didn’t even have enough time to visit everything in just one go. So, while I wait to go back there for more, here are my top 3 contemporary art museums in Seoul I visited during my last trip.
1 – MMCA – The National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art
The National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art needs no presentation. It is the largest and first national museum established in South Korea back in 1969 to exhibit both national and international artists.
It has 4 different locations. The main museum is located in Gwacheon and it has three more branches in Deoksugung, Seoul, and Cheongju. The Gwacheon branch, about an hour south of Seoul, is a vast building that resembles a fortress and it hosts a fantastic collection of Korean contemporary art from the 20th century. It also has an amazing sculpture park filled with works by some of the best Korean and international artists.
The Seoul branch, on the contrary, is located near Gyeongbokgung Palace, in the heart of the city and steps away from the amazing Bukchon Hanok Village. It hosts well designed temporary exhibitions, as well as screenings, talks, and a wide range of art-related events. The building was only opened in 2013 and it is a must-stop if you are in Seoul for a short time but still want to squeeze in a museum visit. Also, don’t forget it is open on Monday, unlike most other museums in Seoul!
MMCA – National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea
Various locations, in Gwacheon, Deoksugung, Seoul and Cheongju.
Open daily, 10.00 – 18.00
Admission 4,000 KRW (may vary depending on the exhibition)
2 – Leeum Samsung Museum of Art
The Leeum Samsung Museum of Art is not just a museum, it’s an aesthetic experience and a pleasure for the eyes.
It is located in Hannam-dong, in the Yongsan district, right in the center of Seoul and just steps away from Itaewon. The museum has three different sections. Museum 1, designed by Swiss architect Mario Botta, hosts traditional Korean art. Museum 2, by French architect Jean Nouvel, displays the contemporary art collection. Lastly, the museum has a Child Education & Culture Center designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. It is well worth a visit, even just for the architecture. The three buildings are beautifully designed and the exhibitions are extremely well-curated.
Museum 1 hosts a beautiful retrospective of traditional Korean art, from pottery and ceramics to traditional paintings, jewelry, religious art. The galleries are connected by a beautiful white spiral staircase, which is itself a piece of art. Visitors can enjoy a wide range of information materials, mostly on screen, to better appreciate the pieces on display and the history behind their creation. Or they can just stare at the wonders on view, some of which are designated national treasures.
Museum 2, on the contrary, hosts modern and contemporary art. Here visitors can appreciate Korean masters and international artists paired together in three beautifully designed galleries, revolving around the concept of “Beyond Space”. Here visitors can find Korean pioneers, like Lee Sang-beom and Byeon Kwan-sik, but also 20th Century well-established Korean artists like Kim Whan-ki and Nam Jun Paik, as well as international masters like Giacometti, Bacon, Rothko, Hirst or Koons.
There is a piece for everyone in this amazing museum and you don’t want to miss the Culture Center as well, that hosts temporary exhibitions, as well as the sculpture garden outside.
All in all, I think this was the most beautiful museum I visited in Seoul. I particularly appreciated it not just for the collection, but also for the incredible architecture. The whole museum conveys a sense of richness and great attention to detail.
Leeum Samsung Museum of Art
60-16 Itaewon-ro 55-gil, Hannam-dong, Yongsan-gu, Seoul, South Korea
Open Tuesday through Sunday, 10.30 am – 6 pm
Tickets 5,000 – 10,000 KRW
3 – Arario Museum in Space
Much smaller than the previous two museums listed, but just as interesting, the Arario Museum in Space is located next to Changdeokgung Palace, in the heart of Seoul. With a second branch on Jeju island, this museum displays pieces of the private collection of his founder and Arario Corporation chairman, Chang-il Kim. The museum is hosted in a former architectural firm’s office designed by the famed Korean architect Kim Swoo-geun.
The building itself is, once again, remarkably beautiful and the museum only adds to this great piece of architecture. The museum, which also hosts a cafe and a restaurant, occupies a series of smaller and bigger rooms, that create an eclectic exhibition path.
From the main entrance, the visitors climb up a narrow and dark staircase to reach the collection. On top of the stairs, they end up in a glass-walled fifth floor open plan room, that overlooks the beautiful Changdeokgung gardens. The exhibition displays both Korean and international artists, nested in small rooms, sometimes even in former toilettes, as well as big halls. The overall feeling is as strange as it is amusing. All the pieces on show are so well presented and integrated into the architecture that you get the feeling they were created specifically for this space.
The museum can be easily visited in a couple of hours. And yet you can stay longer, sipping a delicious coffee from their cafe or just sitting outside and enjoying the peculiar architecture. Being made up mostly of small rooms (that used to be offices), I loved the different vibes you can get during the visit. Visitors can go from small dark rooms to bigger ones filled with light, from small nooks that only host one installation to larger halls with amazing bodies of works.
Arario Museum In Space
Euljiro 83, Jongno-Gu, Seoul, Korea 219 Wonseodong, Jongno-Gu, Seoul, Korea
Open Tuesday through Sunday, 10 am – 7 pm
Tickets 15,000 KRW
I only stayed in Seoul for a little over one week, definitely too short of a time to enjoy everything the city has to offer. Also, it was August so many galleries and a few smaller museums were closed, so I definitely need to go back at a point to check everything I missed.
Have you ever visited South Korea? What were your favorite contemporary art museums in Seoul? Share your picks and let me know what to put on my bucket list for my next trip to South Korea!
And don’t forget to check my Brief Guide To Contemporary Art In Seoul for more ideas!