Former Queen of Iran on assembling Tehran’s Art Collection
by Saeed Kamali Dehghan
Situated in the heart of the Iranian capital, Tehran’s Museum of Contemporary Art is home to the world’s most valuable collection of western modern art outside Europe and the United States. The rarely shown collection, which includes works by giants such as Pollock, Warhol and Bacon, was bought under the supervision of Farah Pahlavi, the former queen of Iran who fled the country along with the late Shah during the turbulent events of the 1979 Islamic revolution. The Guardian has spoken to the former empress about the museum and its remarkable collection on the occasion of an exhibition showing some of the art pieces for the first time.
Q. Where did the idea for the collection come from?
I have always been fascinated with the arts. When I was in Iran in that position I was constantly concerned with promoting our Iranian traditional art but, at the same time, with introducing contemporary and modern art. I was particularly interested in modern paintings and sculptures. A number of private galleries were open at the time and the ministry of culture had a biennial of art and I was always involved in the inaugurations and the ceremonies.
I was interested in buying contemporary works and encouraged public offices to buy them at all times. Our curators and collectors at that time were mostly interested in the traditional art and not so much in the modern art. This is why I encouraged our private and public figures to buy modern works.
There was an exhibition which I participated in and there Mrs Iran Darroudi [an Iranian artist] had put some of her works on display. It was an exhibition held in a place between Pahlavi Street and Shahreza Street, the place where City Theatre was built, there was an old building in a place called Municipal Gardens. I remember Mrs Darroudi telling me she wished we had a place where we could put our works on show permanently, that was how the idea for Tehran’s museum of contemporary art came up. I thought how good it would be to have a museum where we could put the works of our contemporary artists. Later I thought, why shouldn’t we include foreign works, this is how it all started, as far as I remember. I spoke to Mr Kamran Diba [a prominent architect and a cousin of Farah Pahlavi] to design the museum.
It was the early 1970s, our oil revenue had significantly increased and I spoke to His Majesty [the Shah] and [the then prime minister] Mr Amir-Abbas Hoveyda, and told them that it was the best time to buy some of our ancient works both internally and from outside. They agreed. The museum was supposed to be built in Farah park which is now called Laleh park. I wanted it to be built in a park so that people could have better and easier access to the museum. I remember they intended to build houses in Farah park and His Majesty was away from Iran, I contacted him and wrote to him asking them to stop the construction which they did. The Museum of Contemporary Art and Museum of Carpets were built there. I wanted the museum’s building to be both inspired by our ancient architecture and have modern elements and Mr Diba did it so well, the museum’s rooms were designed in a way that the light came in through windows similar to the wind-catchers of Yazd’s deserts.
Q. Who actually selected the art pieces?
Both Iranian and foreign works were bought under the supervision of my office. We provided the budget from NIOC [National Iranian Oil Company] and the budget planning office. Of the people involved, two were Americans, Donna Stein and David Galloway, and Mr Diba, who was the director of the museum, and Mr Karimpasha Bahadori, who was the chief of staff of the cabinet. Most of the paintings were bought under the direct supervision of my office with help from Mr Bahadori. He had met the president of Christie’s and Sotheby’s and the [Ernst] Beyeler art gallery in Switzerland. When Mr Bahadori left the office, Mr Diba became more involved with selecting the works.