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Seoul at the Crossroads
Moving towards a cultural policy driven by civic-ness and citizen engagement

Last November, the World Cities Culture Forum met in Seoul. We’ve been reflecting on what happened in South Korea and the discussions that took place there. Here we present the first of three blogs relating to the Seoul Summit. Plans are already underway for the next gathering, which will be in San Francisco later in the year.

In the first of three dispatches from Seoul, this article reports on how the city is implementing an inspiring new cultural policy. One that is driven by a vision of civic-ness and citizen engagement, which demands neither state interference in people’s lives nor a model of laissez faire consumer capitalism.

South Korea is at a turning point in terms of its cultural policy, and the invitation to Seoul provided an opportunity for members to learn about the city’s exciting new cultural plan, ‘Seoul Culture Vision 2030’. This strategy seeks to guarantee cultural rights for the city’s citizens, while supporting artisans and makers. It’s the articulation of a human-centred cultural capitalism. This vision was a response to the city’s rapid economic growth and development, which had neglected its citizens’ happiness. It represents a commitment to become a ‘Citizen-first metropolitan City’, with a renewed focus on the cultural life of its citizens.

The opening session of the Summit heard from Hwang Sok-Yong (one of South Korea’s greatest living novelists), who talked passionately about the effects of the rapid growth and recent turbulence on the life of artists and ordinary citizens, setting the scene for the Summit. With an increasing focus on what citizens want, we considered, what does citizen engagement mean and what is the role of cities in supporting this? How can the arts and creativity play a role in the lives of citizens of a world city?

From the fall of 2016 to the spring of 2017, peaceful candlelight vigils in Seoul brought the world’s attention to Korea and its citizens. The plazas of Seoul became stages, galleries and canvasses upon which Seoul experienced an urban revolution. But even before the Candlelight Revolution, Seoul had been undergoing something of a paradigm shift, reflecting the central importance of public engagement in the development and delivery of cultural policy, in the words of Mayor Park: “from hardware to software; from quantitative growth to qualitative growth”. To move into a different future, the city has developed a radically different approach to cultural policy: The Seoul Culture Vision 2030, Creative Civic City.

This new strategy, which was showcased at the World Cities Culture Summit, is built upon the recognition that many citizens are excluded from culture or neglect their cultural lives. The goals of the new cultural strategy include:

  • Guarantee a right to culture by removing barriers
  • Support for lifelong arts education
  • Revitalization of everyday culture (citizens are not just spectators)
  • Balancing of investment and infrastructure across the whole city
  • Promotion of Seoul’s culture and history to the world
  • Improving artists’ welfare
  • Making cultural policy citizen-led, not top-down

There was a notable restored faith in the integrity of public institutions and the political will of the Mayor and his cultural team. In some ways culture is the perfect way for the city administration to demonstrate its commitment to the humanistic values it espouses. For the rest of us it embodies many of the principles that are informing World Cities around the globe: opening culture to everybody, and recognising that a full cultural life can lead to greater well-being and a better city for all. It was a privilege to see the strategy fresh and new, and for the sake of all South Koreans we look forward to it changing lives in what many of us consider to be the city of the future.