Korea WEST Intern Brings Late Korean Artist Don Ahn’s Legacy to Life

When Korea WEST intern HoWon Kim came to New York City to intern at American Corporate Benefits, he had not envisioned discovering a new passion and career path.

HoWon spent his time in United States researching the life of late Korean artist Don Ahn and bringing his legacy to life. Not only did he play an instrumental role in bringing Ahn’s work to public attention during his internship, but the professional experience proved to be life-changing for him.

HoWon with Richard Allen, Supervisor at Art on Paper, New York.

A Life Changing Opportunity

The Korea WEST exchange program is a bilateral South Korean and U.S. government initiative that celebrates its 10th anniversary in 2019. It provides top South Korean university students and young professionals the opportunity to intern, complete an intensive English study program, and explore the life and culture of the United States through immersion and independent travel.

HoWon enjoys Christmas in New York City.

HoWon came to New York City as a Korea WEST intern without any idea as to how this unique opportunity would change his life.

Thanks to Cultural Vistas, he was placed at an organization that reflected his interests, gave him an opportunity to learn and explore  new interests, and has inspired new passions and purpose.

“I am really thankful to Cultural Vistas for placing me at an organization that understands my future career aspirations and gave me an opportunity to explore the field. Working as a shape researcher for the Korean American artists archive has been monumental in my growth as a person and professional.”

A Daunting Task

When he started his internship, HoWon didn’t know the extent of how deeply he would be able to connect with the work of artists and bring their lost legacies to life again.

It was a very pleasant surprise to be given the responsibility of studying the life and works of Dongkuk Ahn, better known as Don Ahn, a late South Korean artist who came to New York City to study in the 1960s before making the city his home.

HoWon found Ahn’s work especially interesting because it was heavily inspired by nature and other Eastern themes. Some of his work is reminiscent of Eastern Calligraphy and depicts natural forms and environments in the abstract. A powerful figure of Korean and Chinese mythology, the dragon is a huge influence in his work, which inspired HoWon to study and learn more about its symbolism.

Exploring the rich art New York City has to offer at The Guggenheim, Met and Museum of Modern Art.

Due to limited archives of his work, researching the life of Don Ahn was difficult, but HoWon saw this both as a challenge and an opportunity. He realized this was a unique chance to bring back the lost legacy of a Korean American artist and contribute to both American and Korean art history.

“As a Korean myself, I felt that the internship gave me an opportunity to contribute to Korean art history and bring it to global attention. At the same time, knowing Don Ahn was the first generation of Korean American artists, I also felt a strong motivation to complete this project successfully.”

Overcoming Obstacles

Though HoWon was up to the challenge, it wasn’t until he began working on researching Don Ahn that he realized the amount of effort that the task would entail.

Don Ahn’s work, though unique, had not been archived or preserved. The Pratt Institute and New York University, where Don received his MFA and PhD, had no records from the 1960s and 1970s.

Visiting the Korean Cultural Center to see Seung Won Suh’s exhibition.

HoWon’s recalls researching and reaching out to every organization related to Korean American art and working on preserving art from Don Ahn’s time in the hopes of finding more about him.

“I never gave up; I understood this task required patience and persistence. In the end, reaching out to professions in the field, organizations, and the experts in the industry proved to be monumental in my growth.”

Bringing Don Ahn’s Legacy Back

Among the many highlights of being a Korea WEST intern, HoWon remembers reaching out to Jeffrey Wechsler, a former curator at Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Wechsler had worked with Don Ahn and showed great interest in collaborating on HoWon’s project. Together, the two organized a special exhibition of the late Korean artist’s work in Chelsea.

HoWon’s internship in the United States afforded him the opportunity to gain hands-on experience working for art galleries and draw public attention to Don Ahn’s work.

This was HoWon’s first experience putting together an art exhibition, and he did it all—including gathering the artwork, compiling it into a series, writing art descriptions, and promoting the exhibition.

Besides all the great career experience, the highlight of HoWon’s project was bridging the gap between the gallery and the curator.

“Putting together an exhibition boosted my confidence and gave me my first insight into the real business world of art. I began understanding the intricacies of putting up an exhibition, exploring art history, and bringing together art curators and galleries that work on similar themes.”

HoWon at the Gagosian gallery in Chelsea

Tapping Into Passion and Purpose

Completing the project on Don Ahn’s work helped familiarize HoWon with many other Korean American artists and enabled him to learn about their lives and work with a global perspective. Inspired by the experience, he now hopes to apply this knowledge in his career.

“Throughout my time in the U.S., I thought about the work of diaspora artists and how it contributes to American art. This has inspired me to study this in greater detail, giving a new purpose to my life and career.”

HoWon believes that his internship experience has taught him to think differently. Armed with this new way of thinking, he plans to study art history at the postgraduate level in the U.S. and contribute to preserving the work of late artists across the U.S. and South Korea.

Four Months and Many Firsts

For HoWon, the Korea WEST internship provided him with many firsts. Not only was it his first professional work experience—it was his first time living abroad, exploring a new culture, networking, researching the works of a late artist, and putting up an art exhibition.

HoWon’s internship farewell at the American Corporate Benefits office in NYC.

Most importantly, this experience opened his eyes to the idea that his interest and passion for art could form the basis to develop a meaningful career.

“The Korea WEST internship was an eye-opening experience for me because not only did I experience the American life and culture, but the internship also helped me grow as a person and professional. I visited the museums in D.C. and New York, attended special exhibits during the time, joined talks, seminars and symposiums that helped the scholar in me, while the internship experience really helped me practically witness how professionals excel in the art field.”

HoWon at the ‘Independent’ art fair in New York City.

Inspired by bringing back the legacy of one late artist—HoWon now wants to do the same for others. He is now applying to study art history and using the knowledge gained during his internship in grad school applications.

HoWon may have come to the U.S. unsure of what lied ahead, first with his English study and then his four-month internship, but he left knowing exactly what he wanted to come next.