An American curator wrote a memoir on building Tehran’s legendary $ 3 billion art collection. In Iran, he was not greeted warmly
The Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art (TMoCA) has been a beacon for the Iranian people for decades. During the Islamic Revolution of 1979, a human shield formed around the building to protect the art inside. In 2016, when the museum’s privatization plans were made public, protests took to the streets.
After two years of renovations, TMoCA – home to the most valuable collection of Western modern art outside of Europe and North America – reopened on January 28. But that’s not the only reason the museum is back in the limelight.
Its reopening coincided with the publication of a new book by Donna Stein, an American curator who lived in Tehran between 1975 and 1977 and helped assemble the famous collection. The 208-page book, The Empress and I: How an Ancient Empire Rejected and Rediscovered Modern Art, made international headlines and aroused controversy in the Iranian art world.
Iranian art critics, patrons and founding members of the museum say Stein’s book – and its international coverage – perpetuates harmful stereotypes about Iranian society. They also claim that her role in building the collection is not as central as she suggests.
Stein disputes these characterizations. âMy book is an effort to tell my story, what I know and remember, and I have documents and letters to support my conclusions,â she told Artnet News. âAfter 50 years, I think a picture of that time from a participant’s perspective is valuable and I want people to know the truth about art and my role as an American woman living in Tehran in the mid 70s.
What is “true” about the creation of TMoCA’s famous collection, however, changes depending on who tells their story.
The role of the museum
When TMoCA was inaugurated by Empress Farah Pahlavi, wife of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, at the height of the Iranian oil boom in 1977, it received worldwide acclaim for its impressive collection of Western art. Iran, a nation that the world has become repressive, was then open to the world and free.
To put things in perspective: the museum was inaugurated the same year as the Center Pompidou in Paris and 25 years before the Tate Modern in London. Works from the most esteemed names in art history – Francis Bacon, Salvador DalÃ, Andy Warhol, Robert Motherwell and many more – were there. The collection is now valued at between $ 3 billion and $ 4 billion, according to Kamran Diba, the architect and former director of the museum. His vision was to exhibit Western art alongside the work of modern and contemporary Iranian artists.
âTMoCA is a unique institution because it is the first museum of modern art of international standards established in the Middle East and still unsurpassed, âEmpress Farah Diba Pahlavi told Artnet News. “The museum and its world-class collection represent a symbol of modernity, which is a source of national pride for Iranians, offering collaboration with artists from all over the world.”
Then came the Islamic Revolution of 1979. In January of that year, the Empress and the Shah fled, never to return to their country again. The Shah died in exile in 1980 as the Empress divides her time between Paris and Washington, DC She continues to be a staunch supporter of the Iranian art scene from afar.
This story helps explain why the museum – and the narrative surrounding it – is so precious to many Iranians. This is also why they feel wronged when this story is, in their minds, misinterpreted.
Critics of Stein’s book, three of whom have spoken to Artnet News, believe his story perpetuates harmful misrepresentations of the museum. Asked about these claims, the Empress, who is pictured with Stein on the book’s cover, declined to provide further comment.
Critics say Stein takes credit for playing a bigger role in shaping the museum than she actually did. âIn my opinion, Donna Stein was a young employee with little experience,â Diba, who is also the Empress’s first cousin, told Artnet News. As a director, he was personally responsible for purchasing key works, including that of Andy Warhol. Suicide (Man jumping purple) (1965), for $ 81,400, and Jasper Johns’s Passage two (1966) for $ 255,000.
The process of acquiring TMoCA was a collaborative effort. In two interviews with Dubai-based journalist Myrna Ayad for Canvas and The art journal, Farah Diba Pahlavi thanked Founding Director Diba, Chief of Staff Karim Pasha Bahadori, Founding Curator David Galloway and finally Stein for “shaping the collection”.
While Stein claimed to have played a central role in the selection of works on paper (including prints, drawings and photographs) as well as paintings and sculptures, Diba said she was heavily involved in the construction of the collection of photographs, which he does not consider to be the most important part of the museum’s collections.
âBrowsing through the catalog pages of the collection of photographs alongside the prints she helped put together, it quickly became apparent to anyone knowing that none of the key pieces that should have been acquired as part of a collection interesting contemporary art of the time was not in fact acquiredHe told Artnet News.
Stein – who previously worked as an assistant curator in the Prints and Illustrated Books department at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and was hired after traveling to Iran with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts – says her contribution was underestimated because of her nationality and gender.
“A lot of people were given credit for the work I had done,” said Stein, noting that the Empress only officially acknowledged her involvement in 2013, when she contributed a chapter on her experience to a book on Iranian visual culture.
In an interview with Artnet News, Stein went even further than she did in the book, saying she also advised Iranian artists for the collection in consultation with other curators. âWhat I didn’t say in the book is that I not only chose Western works from the collection, but also chose Iranian works,â she said. (She added that she maintains “careful records of Western and contemporary Iranian acquisitions, which I recently learned are archived at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art.”)
In addition to the history of TMoCA and its collection, Stein also recounts her experiences as an American bachelor living in Tehran in the mid-1970s and how she was often mocked for what Iranians then considered her unusual lifestyle. .
âThe Iranians at the time had no idea of ââwomen living alone; a woman was living with her family or was married, âshe said. âI was neither. It was a strange company for someone like me who was young, adventurous and a hard worker.
But some in the Iranian art world have interpreted his account, along with his comments in the international press, as what Maryam Eisler, former chair of the Middle East Acquisitions Committee at Tate, called “accusatory chronicle of an Iranian society. Â»Eisler points the finger a New York Times interview in which Stein described Iran as “the third world” and the museum audience as “uneducated”.
âPerhaps a reminder is intended to counter these outdated ‘orientalist’ narratives; in fact, the “educated” among us universally recognize that Iran is one of the greatest cradles of civilization, “Eisler said.
Testimony to Iran’s living memory
Amid political repression, rising inflation, and continued sanctions in Iran, some might wonder why the story of TMoCA matters, or why the people involved in the museum go to such lengths to, in their minds, correct the balance sheet. âBoth with regard to Stein’s book and international news coverage.
âWhenever the Western art of TMoCA is exhibited, someone writes an article about how this is the first time this art has been seen since the revolution, usually accompanied by a photograph of a veiled woman looking at it. Warhol or Giacometti, âsaid Shiva Balaghi, a cultural historian specializing in Middle Eastern art. âMaintaining the myth of novelty – for whatever reason – becomes an act of cultural obliteration. It erases the traces, often fleeting, with which we write art stories and develop a better understanding of the role of art in society.
For a country isolated from the world for decades, it is always through its art that Iran has communicated with the outside world. TMoCA is the epitome of Iran’s powerful belief in art and culture; in many ways, it is his last symbol of freedom.
“What people tend to forget is that this museum was just as much about creating an important cultural dialogue and interaction between the great Western artists of the time and their Iranian counterparts, me being one,” said prominent Iranian artist Parviz Tanavoli at Artnet News. “This is, for me, the greatest legacy of the collection – not only internationally, but also, and above all, for the Iranian people.”
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