Written by Douglas Baumwoll
Photographs courtesy of Gwangju’s Culture & Arts Center
I have been living in Gwangju for three full years now, and one reason I love it here is because we enjoy many big-city benefits while living in a small-city environment. Museums, galleries, international foods, professional baseball games, live music concerts, and the performance arts. Regarding these last two items, I have seen many performances in the city. Most folks are familiar with the acclaimed Asia Culture Complex, which holds a wide variety of acts ranging from symphonies and operas to international music and theater ensembles. Next in line, based on my own experience and people I’ve spoken to over the years, is the Bitgoeul Citizens’ Culture Hall, located on the south side of the river, just west of the Gwangju Bridge in the heart of downtown. I have seen a French piano duet there, the Vienna String Quartet, and the GIC’s own annual concert. But there is another venue in town hosting high-quality orchestra, opera, choir, theater, K-pop, traditional music, and ballet performances.
Arrival here is easy by public transport (more on that later). As I approach the venue on foot, the main concert hall is not visible from the street. Instead, I see sets of steps cut into a wide hillside leading up, flanked by treed grassy expanses dotted with sculptures. I slowly take in the aesthetics and enjoy this oasis of open green space in the middle of our concrete jungle, climbing the stairs upward to the five buildings that comprise the Gwangju Culture and Arts Center.
Ms. Song Woon Kang, Marketing Director, has graciously agreed to meet me in order to chat about the Gwangju Culture and Arts Center for the benefit of our readers. Having originally taken a job here with the Gwangju City Ballet, she is now employed by the venue itself, and is excited about this year’s performance schedule. (We’ll get to that in a minute.)
As we enter the main building, housing the Main Hall, I admire the open space and architecture. A large lobby area of polished granite floors and a handful of large columns, faced in cut granite panels defining lines of visual art matching those all over the complex, support a balcony, which leads farther up to the roof some 15 meters overhead. We wander over to the small coffee shop for patrons to enjoy themselves before performances, and we sit down to drink and talk.
After a bit, we enter the auditorium from the top, looking down on the 50-row expanse of empty seats awaiting concert-goers for the next show, a K-pop gig, and then a world-renowned Japanese pianist the following evening. I had been to this venue only once before this visit – to see the Gwangju Symphony Orchestra – and was instantly angry with myself for not having taken advantage of this fine arts resource more often during my time here. I was astounded, when doing research before the interview, to discover that the Center holds hundreds of shows each year. Ms. Kang confirmed that in 2018 there will be 250 live performances – 230 Korean acts and another 20 foreign ones. The concert hall holds 1,700 people: the bottom level seating 1,200, and the upper balcony another 500, and none are obstructed-view seats. Generally speaking, the Center sells about 87 percent of its tickets for a given event, with prices ranging from 10,000 won to 120,000 won, depending on the performer and where you choose to sit in the auditorium. A final note on the venue itself: in December 2017, during its 26th year of operation, all of the doors and walls underwent an “eco” remodeling, replacing old materials with natural materials such as wood; the sound system was also replaced, both resulting in increased acoustic quality for the audience to experience.
The complex of buildings includes the Small Theater as well. This venue hosts concerts of traditional Korean music, as well as drama and other performing arts shows. Located between the Main Hall and the Small Theater is an art gallery, which is opened only on performance days. This is a special viewing gallery available to paying customers to enjoy before or after concerts in the two music halls.
A fourth building houses the Gwangju Museum of Photography. This is a large open space, perhaps 50 meters long by 15 meters wide, currently exhibiting the works of three Korean photographers. I failed to note their names, but all were born in the 1930s. In all, some 60 large framed photos, mostly black and white, adorn the walls here. Interspersed among the photo exhibits are glass cases filled with historic handwritten documents and dozens of antique cameras. There is no information in English in these exhibits, but I thoroughly enjoyed contemplating the photos themselves, among them portraits of men and women, nature scenes, and shots of women working in fishing villages.
Well, that’s it for this review of the Gwangju Culture and Art Center. I hope you come and see the architecture, grounds, and concerts for yourselves. Remember, this is no rinky-dink operation – its annual budget is about 500,000,000 won, not including the salaries of its 338 full- and part-time employees and performers. Its funding comes from ticket sales and the Gwangju City government, and it has been in operation since 1991 to promote art and culture by providing affordable performances for Gwangju residents. Come down and make an afternoon of it, eating in one of the handful of nearby restaurants, walking the grounds, and seeing the museum and gallery before a concert. You can also take a one-kilometer walk on a manicured path through the woods over to the Biennale Complex, leaving the Center from the rear of the Main Hall. More than a dozen buses come nearby. You can get off at the Kumho Jungang Girls’ High School stop on Seoam-daero Highway, two kilometers past the backside of Gwangju Train Station. It’s a ten-minute walk from there. The No. 58 bus stops directly in front of the Center.
Check out the Gwangju Culture and Arts Center website at http://gjart.gwangju.go.kr. Currently, the site is not in English, however the Center has set a goal to get one up by May of this year. If you view the site in Chrome and use the translation option, you can navigate it well enough. If you would like to order tickets and do not have a Korean speaker to help you, call the 1330 English hotline and explain to them what you need, and they will be able to assist you in reserving or buying tickets.
There are many offerings coming up, but Ms. Kang specifically told me that they are proud to present the Berlin Symphony Orchestra – which is rated number one in the world, based on a quick Internet search – accompanying the Gwangju City Ballet. Four shows will take place between May 24 and 27. I will definitely be there for one of those. Will you?
Doug Baumwoll, a professional writer and editor for 25 years, trains in-service teachers in writing skills and methodology. His personal writing interests include visionary and speculative fiction, climate change, energy, and social justice. He is the founder of SavetheHumanz.com.