When Korean pop superstars BTS visited the White House in May to talk about the recent spike in anti-Asian hate crimes, over 300,000 people watched the briefing live – compared to a more typical 16,000. The pop group, which announced in June that it is going on a temporary break, is known for having that effect – it’s become known colloquially as “the BTS bump.”
A few days earlier, the group’s leader RM used his clout to draw attention to a more niche institution – the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston – and its exhibit on the Canadian-American painter Phillip Guston.
As he has for dozens of museums and galleries, the 27-year-old Korean musician posted about his visit to his 35.6 million followers on Instagram, sending his eager fanbase rushing to visit, learn more, and post on social media. That’s just what happens when one of the world’s biggest pop stars becomes passionate about a new hobby.
“As an art enthusiast and a collector who loves art, I read and study a lot hoping to grow special insights and better discerning eyes … ” RM, who began visiting museums regularly in 2018, told ARTnews via email.
“I’m not good at multitasking, but I’m a person who digs deep once I get interested. Right now, I’m into art.”
RM’s deep appreciation of art is well known in South Korea. After he lent a sculpture by artist Kwon Jin Kyu to the Seoul Museum of Art earlier this year, SeMA’s curator said the exhibition became one of its most attended. When he was photographed last summer reading a book on Korean artists that had been out-of-print for decades, it suddenly became a bestseller.
For many in South Korea’s art scene, RM’s influence cannot be overstated.
“There are a lot of art exhibitions being held these days and they can be divided into two broad categories,” Yang Jeong-mu, a Western Art History professor at Korean National University of the Arts told Korean radio station SBS Power FM in December. “The ones RM went to and the ones RM didn’t go to.”
But while BTS – and by extension, RM – has become one of the most famous acts in the world, knowledge in the United States of RM’s affinity for fine art remains mostly limited to the K-pop group’s diehard fans.
The American art world appears to be catching on quickly, though.
In early December last year, RM went on a road trip through the US, which he documented on an Instagram account launched shortly before the trip. While RM posted photos from concerts, his favorite reading material, selfies, or daily life, his most common subject was art – and specifically the various exhibitions he attended.
Instagram, RM said, has become “a place where I can casually share my taste and life off stage that people could relate to.” And, as RM has become more passionate about art, his “spectrum of favorite artworks or artists is getting wider,” he said.
That means more exhibitions to visit.
On that December trip, RM posted from numerous museums and galleries including the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Menil Collection and the Rothko Chapel in Houston, the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, and Skarstedt Gallery in New York City.
When Texas’ Kimbell Art Museum and Blanton Museum got wind that RM was in the state, they each publicly courted him on Twitter to come visit. A few months earlier, RM gave a speech at the Metropolitan Museum of Art when the South Korean government donated a contemporary lacquerware piece to their collection.
While RM’s visits are typically unannounced, arts institutions have noted receiving a surge in social media activity after the BTS member posts. The Chinati Foundation’s post thanking RM for visiting generated 92,000 likes – their other posts typically receive between 200 and 1,500 likes. A post from a month prior to RM’s visit featuring Korean artist Yun Hyong-Keun’s works has over 6,000 likes and is flooded with comments mentioning RM and BTS.
Meanwhile, the National Gallery of Art’s tweet resharing his visit has the most engagement of any tweet for their account at nearly 12,000 retweets and 40,000 likes. The National Gallery translated that attention into a bigger following. In the 24 hours after RM’s post – which didn’t even tag the institution – the National Gallery acquired nearly three times the number of followers it would on an average day, according to Anabeth Guthrie, the National Gallery’s chief of communications.
“We were heartened to see how many people shared that they were now inspired to visit,” Guthrie told ARTnews.
Harder to quantify is whether RM’s posts resulted in more visitors, whether from BTS fans – also known as ARMYs – or otherwise. A number of the galleries and museums said they had no way of substantiating a bump in attendance due to RM because they don’t collect that kind of granular data.
A few of the larger museums, like The Getty in Los Angeles, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, reported not seeing any appreciable difference. And, in some cases, like RM’s visit to Skarstedt to see KAWS, the exhibit was already sold out when he attended on one of its final days.
When ARMY Stops By – #Namjooning
Common amongst ARMYs is the phenomenon dubbed “Namjooning,” after the artist’s legal name, Kim Namjun, where fans will post photos of themselves taking part in RM’s hobbies, like hiking, bike riding, caring for plants, and appreciating the sky.
Appreciating art has become a common method of #Namjooning. The Rothko Chapel told ARTnews of numerous visitors telling staff RM inspired their visit. The Broad in Los Angeles and The Menil Collection mentioned seeing visitors cluster in areas where RM posed for his Instagram posts, like outside Menil’s Cy Twombly Gallery. Similarly, at the National Gallery of Art, fans have taken to recreating RM’s photo outside the museum’s 6th Street entrance; Guthrie said that she has seen fans share photos of the musician’s favorite works.
Meanwhile, the Getty has become a popular pilgrimage site for ARMYs. Fans spoken to by ARTnews almost all mentioned seeing other ARMYs during their visit.
Virgie Felix, a 44-year-old ICU nurse from Atlanta, told ARTnews she visited The Broad and The Getty museums on a visit to Los Angeles after seeing RM post about the institutions.
“We were able to see and experience art that we may not have thought about going to see,” she said, while discussing the effects of RM’s love of art, via Twitter. “There were so many ARMYs at both of them as well!”
Several fans said that they were inspired to go to museums locally, while others are making plans to visit the same institutions as RM, especially those that are difficult to reach.
Inspired by RM, Brooklyn-based UX designer Amber Muck, 30, is now planning to visit the Rothko Chapel this fall.
“Because life is too short to not see the art that you love,” she said.
Others, like 28-year-old immigration attorney Abyan Gurase, New York, have gone not only to museums RM has frequented, like the Met, but to keep an eye on his favorite artists and view their exhibitions when they can. For example, she recently visited the Brooklyn Museum to see an exhibit on the street artist KAWS, one of RM’s favorite artists.
RM’s Growing Reputation as an Art Aficionado
As RM spends more time at US art institutions, arts professionals have begun to recognize him as someone with a complex understanding of art.
After RM’s visit to the Chinati Foundation, director Jenny Moore described the K-Pop star to ARTnews as a “noted art collector” and “particularly passionate” about Korean painter Yun Hyong-keun and American minimalist artist Donald Judd. Chinati, which was founded by Judd and contains many of his works in its permanent collection, featured both artists recently in a special exhibit.
“We spent several hours touring the permanent installations and special exhibitions and particularly appreciated [RM] sharing with us his perceptions of the work and his deep knowledge of both Judd and Yun,” Moore said.
Will Davison, the Communication and Visitor Engagement Manager for the Rothko Chapel, provided RM with a personal tour. He came away similarly impressed.
“I was enamored with his depth of knowledge and appreciation for the artistry of Mark Rothko,” Davison told ARTnews, noting that RM has visited Rothko’s work all over the world. “It was a pleasure to be in his presence and just to get a bird’s eye view of his understanding of this work.”
Davison isn’t alone in his assessment. Guthrie, of the National Gallery, loved that the songwriter shared some of his favorite works.
“He chose some of our hidden gems—like a case of oil sketches by Georges Seurat,” she said.
When RM discusses this particular passion, he often talks about art as if it were a refuge.
“Visual art is a different field and because I can purely enjoy them without any strings attached, the feeling becomes more vivid,” he said.
RM continued, “The visual experience feels more complete. I’m often moved by the fact that I can see and feel the real textures or physical existence of the work from the time when the artists were alive.”
But now that RM has found a new way to share his personal discovery of art, he is looking for more ways to make art accessible to newbies.
“Some day, I would like to create a public space related to art which, I think, would not be in the form of a gallery or a museum,” he said.