Driver puts art and Seoul into career

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 November, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 November, 2008, 12:00am

Ask Kim Jeong-woong where an art exhibition is running in Seoul and chances are he'll have a ready answer. Kim drives the Museum Shuttle Bus, a service plying the city's main art districts, and has made it his business to know what's happening in the galleries and museums.

'I try to read as many brochures and catalogues as I can,' says the lively 66-year-old, who cuts a jaunty figure in his trademark beret. 'It's important to have this information at your fingertips.'

Along the way, he also provides a running commentary over the speakers on passing historical sites and other attractions, including locations where popular South Korean dramas were filmed, much to the delight of Japanese fans.

Something of a linguist, Kim spoke a smattering of English and German. When he noticed that many of his passengers were Japanese, he began to learn the language.

'I can now keep up a conversation as we go from Insa-dong to Pyeongchang-dong explaining the art in Japanese,' he says.

Just a decade ago Kim couldn't tell a Park Soo-keun from a Paik Nam-june. A former civil servant, he became a casualty of the Asian financial crisis when the government began cutting jobs in 1998. 'I was dejected but tried to find work,' he says.

With the usual white-collar avenues closed, he had just managed to get a city bus driver's licence when news came that the fine art conglomerate Gana Art was seeking a driver for a new shuttle service linking its various exhibition spaces, including the just opened Gana Art Centre in the outskirts at Pyeongchang-dong. 'I had to exaggerate my driving experience to get the job,' he says.

The early days were hard going, especially because Kim was initially embarrassed about his new job.

'There's prestige associated with a government job in Korean society,' he says. 'My son, who was in university at the time, was sure I wouldn't stick with it for more than a week. But he says he learned a lot by watching me go through that time.'

Although he knew little about art then, Kim was fortunate to run into a Gana employee who once worked for a government museum. 'He recognised me, took me under his wing and began to teach me,' Kim says.

Before long, the shuttle driver was settling in to his new position. 'I've always loved classical music so I began playing my selections on the bus,' he says. 'Soon passengers were asking me to turn it up. I even had a regular who took the bus every day for a month simply because he liked the music.'

Six years ago, he started writing a blog to share tips on Seoul's attractions and to connect people who met on the bus.

On the dashboard, Kim keeps a couple of notebooks filled with comments from passengers which testify to the relationships he has forged en route, including a Korean-born woman who returned to seek her roots after being adopted by a Danish family as a baby.

He often finds himself in the role of confidant to his passengers - something he attributes to his age and open mind. 'One day, I received an e-mail from a young man that was full of references to death,' he says.

'I recalled my own youthful obsession with the subject and ... I wrote back expressing concern.'

It was a relief to learn that his correspondent, an art student, was okay, he says.

For the 1,000-won (HK$6) flat fare, the museum shuttle offers good value. Starting in the art district of Insa-dong, the bus heads to Samcheong-dong, where many well-known galleries are clustered, to Pyeongchang-dong where Gana Art Centre is located, and then north to Jang Heung Art Park, which features outdoor sculptures and a museum. The bus runs on the hour from 1pm to 6pm every day, except Mondays.

Although original works on display are beyond his means, Kim collects exhibition catalogues and frames pictures of works that he appreciates. 'I like to support young artists who haven't been discovered yet,' he says.