Before she arrived in St. Louis to assume her role as the Barbara B. Taylor Director of the Saint Louis Art Museum, Min Jung Kim was quite familiar with her new workplace. Throughout her career in museum leadership, Kim had come to know of SLAM as a highly regarded institution thanks to its premier collection and internationally renowned scholarship. That reputation is what compelled her into taking on this important leadership position, but when she arrived in St. Louis, she realized that what was happening outside its four stone walls was equally thrilling.
“There was another layer of enlightenment that I encountered after finally arriving here in St. Louis,” Kim says. “On the one hand, there was the thinking that I knew the museum to one degree, but being able to better and more fully appreciate it in the context of where it is and from which it emerges adds another layer to it. I don’t think I fully appreciated the richness of the museum as it is situated within Forest Park, which is really quite remarkable.
“It is just amazing to have an art museum situated in such a beautiful place with colleagues like the zoo, history museum, science center. But there is another aspect in understanding how we are not only so very generously supported by the public, but also that a big part of the very ethos of the museum is understanding that we exist for and because of our community. That makes it special.”
Since assuming the directorship in September 2021, Kim has made it her mission to understand not only the museum she now leads, but also its role in the larger cultural fabric of St. Louis. The intersection of those two forces is one of the things that drove her toward art history in the first place. As a young girl growing up in Seoul, South Korea, Kim was always fascinated by culture, though there were not a lot of museums for her to explore this passion for art. It wasn’t until she was an undergraduate at Wheaton College in Massachusetts that Kim began to understand how culture and art related to one another; once she made this connection, she developed a passion for art history that led her down an illustrious career path that includes leadership positions at the New Britain Museum of American Art, the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum of Michigan State University, the Global Cultural Asset Management Group and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.
In all of these roles, Kim has been consistently struck by art’s ability to tell the stories of who we are – something she is eager to explore at SLAM.
“I view art and culture as a wonderful vehicle through which a multiplicity of stories can be told,” Kim says. “I appreciate that art has the ability to tell stories as a way to look back on history, and even then, knowing that there can be different histories that can be told and how that might help us understand our present and the world we live in currently and inform us as to how we might look ahead in the future.”
She believes that SLAM is uniquely poised to embody how art can tell these stories.
“All of this is layered with these incredible objects that live in our collection,” Kim continues. “It’s not just that we have the historical encyclopedic collection here that exists across times, cultures, histories, perspectives and mediums, but that they are layered with the histories of this place in this community and in this region. It’s one of the most exciting things that has appealed to me about coming to St. Louis and also places me at one of the highlights of my career.”
As the first woman, immigrant and person of color to hold the Director position at SLAM, Kim wants to make sure that these stories being told through the museum’s collection are inclusive of all experiences, particularly those who may have been traditionally underrepresented in the art world. She feels strongly that one of the most important ways for this to happen is to partner and collaborate with the community across multiple disciplines. Kim has been impressed with the relationships the museum already has established, and she looks forward to enriching them, as well as looking for new ways to work with other organizations and institutions.
“For now, I’m still within my first year, so I’m just excited to get out into the community, meet with my colleagues and visit them in their wonderful spaces so I might have the opportunity to really explore and get to know all of the richness that exists here,” says Kim. “Through conversations, we can explore what can emerge over time organically and how we can all benefit from them – the notion that a rising tide lifts all ships.”
Kim is adamant that education is a crucial part of the museum’s mission – both for students and adults – as she sees exposure to art as a way that everyone can enrich their lives. She credits the current learning and engagement team with their commitment to creating lifelong learning opportunities not only available but accessible to visitors from all walks of life and prides herself in being a part of an organization that has as its mission open access without any financial barrier. Because admission is free, it allows guests to come in as often as they like – something she believes can lead to new discoveries even when you aren’t expecting it.
“Every day, I see another aspect of the museum or a work of art, and everything looks new and different and fresh,” Kim says. “I can look at the same painting and the same sculpture every day, and it can look different. That’s the thing about having a museum that is dedicated to art and free to all; you can come every day if you want to and have that opportunity to be able to have these fresh perspectives.”