45 years in, Sejong Center for the Performing Arts is as current as ever

Ahn Ho-sang, CEO of Sejong Center for the Performing Arts, sat down for an interview with the Joongang Sunday, an affiliate of the Korea JoongAng Daily on Jan. 31 [JOONGANG SUNDAY]

Sejong Center for the Performing Arts is celebrating 45 years of history. And although it has six resident companies, the center’s CEO Ahn Ho-sang wants to ask: How many Seoulites have been to one of those in-house performances over the past 45 years?

Ahn points out that the center had been relying heavily on sourcing its content from outside, merely acting as a renting venue. But he's now determined to break away from that old custom.

Since Ahn’s appointment in October 2021, the numbers started changing. Seoul Metropolitan Dance Theatre’s “Ilmu,” which premiered last year under fashion designer Jung Ku-ho’s artistic direction, surpassed 5,000 ticket sales — an unprecedented feat in the company’s history.

Another new piece, Seoul Metropolitan Musical Theatre's “Aloha, My Moms” (2022), which deals with Korean immigrants in Hawaii during the Japanese colonial rule, was hailed by both audience members and critics and will soon be reproduced on a bigger stage for a longer run. The Seoul Metropolitan Musical Theatre made headlines for its new director Koh Sun-woon, Korea’s acclaimed playwright.

Such innovative changes are beginning to take place due to Ahn’s determination to make sure that “Sejong Center for the Performing Arts establishes a stable production environment by increasing the production quality as well as the number of performances from the resident companies.”

Ahn began his career in arts management as the head of the administrative team at the Seoul Arts Center. He then became the head of the Seoul Foundation of Art and Culture. He began managing art centers when he became the head of the National Theater of Korea in January 2012. He transformed the state-run theater into one of the most attractive art venues in the country, introducing a seasonal system that discloses a set of upcoming performances and opens tickets for theatergoers. He also helped strengthen the national theater’s resident companies’ content, allowing its dance and changgeuk (a type of traditional Korean Opera) companies to have signature repertoires that attract invitations from international theaters.

Ahn has been in the same field for the past 40 years but says he was faced with an unprecedented challenge right after coming to Sejong Center as the new CEO: the pandemic.

“I believe the polarization of the performing arts market through K-pop stars is rapidly accelerating,” said Ahn, explaining that performances like musicals that can’t afford to cast a K-pop idol can barely stage shows, while ones that can, sell out in minutes.

Ahn says he decided to take the problem head on.

″Ilmu″ is performed by the Seoul Metropolitan Dance Theatre. "lmu" is a reinterpreted Korean dance performance of the traditional choreography performed in the Goryeo and Joseon dynasties. [SEJONG CENTER]

This year, Sejong Center will be presenting 28 different performances that will stage a combined 251 shows, which is a 74 percent increase from last year. Of the 251 shows, 222 will be from resident companies — a big jump from last year, which saw just 19 performances with 114 shows from the residents.

One of the big opportunities for the resident dance company this year is that its “Ilmu” will have its overseas premiere in July at the Lincoln Center in New York.

“This is thanks to Jung, who has been selected as the programmer for the Lincoln Center during Korea Week in New York. K-culture is a hot keyword at the moment, so I think the Lincoln Center took note of Korean dance. It’s a good opportunity for us,” said Ahn.

Transforming an arts center into one that produces a range of works from its resident companies is easier said than done. Each company had been stuck in its own genre and alienated from the demand of the times. Ahn, therefore, introduced “Sync Next,” an off-season summer program that invites renowned artists from different genres, including popular band Leenalchi, which mixes pansori (traditional Korean narrative singing) with pop music, duo Tacit Group, makers of audiovisual art with the most advanced technology, and Kimchi and Chips, a media artist duo making large installations that applies a combination of nature and technology. All shows were sold out.

“Sejong Center has been monopolizing many opportunities as an authoritarian art organization built in the '70s,” said Ahn. “It still has that reputation as an arts center at which artists want to perform, but it has somewhat drifted away from audiences by refusing to change and staying in the past.”

Ahn said his new Sync Next program was quite experimental but successful. It stimulated the resident companies while vitalizing the arts center. It also began to attract more millennials and Gen-Zs who formerly viewed the Sejong Center as an old, conservative arts center.

Sejong lounge opened in the main lobby of the Sejong Center on Tuesday. [NEWS1]

Another big change that happened recently was the reopening of the new Gwanghwamun Square. Sejong Center, with its entrance previously blocked by a six-lane street right in front, is now more approachable by foot, similar to major theaters in Europe. Ahn decided to open its back door as well, to allow people to come into the main lobby of the Grand Theater from all directions, and on Tuesday opened a new lounge area similar to a book cafe where people can come in, relax, read books and drink coffee or tea. Ahn said he wanted to utilize the lobby of the Grand Theater as a public space to connect it to the new Gwanghwamun Square.

Ahn also plans to begin a high-quality outdoor opera program every year, starting with “Carmen” in September. The Seoul Metropolitan Government also plans to renovate the Sejong Center by 2028. One major addition will be to establish a new 1,800-seat classical music concert hall for the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra. But after returning from his recent visit to Europe, Ahn has a different opinion.

“A concert hall for classical music with state-of-the-art acoustics has long been in high demand in Seoul; however, I noticed that major concert halls like Philharmonie de Paris and Royal Festival Hall in London are considering how they can accommodate jazz or electronic music,” said Ahn. “While it is easy to expect that the recent renovation of David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center, home to the New York Philharmonic, pursued top-of-the-class sound systems for classical music, it is in fact a multi-purpose hall.

"This trend will be Korea’s future soon.”

Sejong lounge opened in the main lobby of the Sejong Center on Tuesday. [NEWS1]

Ahn said that “openness” and “environmental friendliness” are two common trends found in concert halls lately. “Theater lobbies were closed shut when there were no performances [before], but nowadays they are starting to open them: Art complexes like the Barbican Center fills its lobby with commercial facilities to induce citizens to enjoy the spaces. The Taipei Performing Arts Center in Taiwan and the newly constructed Royal Opera House both made programs that allow citizens to experience its practice rooms and experience the stages. I think we should also introduce systems like that. I want to plan with the premise that the theater halls can be used all day long, even when there are no performances. While the center has a heavy and solemn atmosphere with its stone construction, I will make it a friendly space where people visiting the [Gwanghwamun] square can enjoy,” said Ahn.

Regarding the controversy surrounding the proper etiquette of watching a performance that’s been buzzing online, Ahn, “as the man responsible for breaking down the rigorism in the industry,” says those who insist on rigorism are anachronistic.

When Ahn organized veteran pop singer Cho Yong-pil’s concerts at Seoul Arts Center for seven years from 1999, the first time a pop artist performed at the Seoul Arts Center, Ahn says he was eager to break the rigorism the arts center had.

“Classics and popular arts were mutually exclusive back then, and opera houses, especially, strongly pursued that purity. From an insider’s perspective, this pursuit of purity was causing the downgrade of the overall quality of the performances and only increased audience members who came with free invitation tickets. I believed that expanding the genres performed at the arts center would bring new phenomena. So a genre that everyone could accept and enjoy was pop, and the artist would be Cho Yong-pil.”

Ahn said that he felt that there was a demand for change from society after watching Elton John perform “Candle in the Wind” at Princess Diana’s funeral.

“It was also about time for theaters to break their customs as they meet the new millennium,” said Ahn.

It was difficult to convince the singer though.

When Ahn visited Cho’s house after begging Cho’s manager for months, Cho didn’t bat an eye as Ahn talked for an hour. Ahn remembered that they talked about a musical production based on Cho’s songs and that Cho also wanted to pursue the idea.

“I said to him that he’ll have to start with a musical-like concert to prepare for a musical that is to come in the future,” said Ahn.

“That’s when he began to listen to me.”

Ahn told his boss that he would resign if the project with Cho turned out to be a failure. Though it doesn’t seem like a far cry from reality today, Cho holding a solo concert at the Seoul Arts Center was quite a spectacle.

Statistics say the market for performing arts has increased by 200 percent, but the polarization of the market is also accelerating. The market for classical music and big-name musicals has exploded, while fine arts that need to attract viewers solely by the quality of its work has faced a crisis in the digital age like never before.

Ahn believes that quality is the only answer.

“We can’t simply approach people, who are already used to On-Time Demand services, with great stories. Performances should be all about spectacles, like how people would get thrilled after watching a performance at an old arena. There is this thrill of excitement that amplifies in live performances. We should focus on that. Different stage effects will appear to strengthen the presence, and more digital equipment will be used in more active ways, not just as tools to support,” said Ahn.

Ahn believes that Korea has the power to create its own unique content. Like K-pop broadening its territories globally, Ahn finds that there is no reason why the country’s fine arts can’t be successful overseas.

“This is why I’m focusing on developing new works performed by our resident companies,” said Ahn. “If we expand a stable market here in Korea first, we’ll be sweeping across the globe in no time.”