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Hired by the Empress of Art at Tehran’s Hidden Museum

Hired by the Empress of Art at Tehran’s Hidden Museum

Thursday, 1 April, 2021 - 07:30
Farah Diba Pahlavi, left, and Donna Stein discussing a Hans Bellmer photograph during the museum’s installation of “Creative Photography: An Historical Survey,” October 1977.Credit...Jila Dejam, via Donna Stein

On the edge of a vast park in Tehran sits a Neo-Brutalist structure the color of sand. Inside is one of the finest collections of modern Western art in the world.

You enter the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art through an atrium that spirals downward like an inverted version of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum. Photos of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the father of Iran’s 1979 Revolution, and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who succeeded him as the Islamic Republic’s supreme leader, glare down at you.

A series of underground galleries awaits. There is nothing quite like the feeling of coming face-to-face for the first time with its most sensational masterpiece: Jackson Pollock’s 1950 “Mural on Indian Red Ground,” a 6-by-8-foot canvas, which was created with rusty reds and layered swirls of thick, dripped paint and is considered one of his best works from his most important period.

Monet, Pissarro, Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas, Renoir, Gauguin, Matisse, Chagall, Klee, Whistler, Rodin, van Gogh, Picasso, Braque, Kandinsky, Magritte, Dalí, Miró, Johns, Warhol, Hockney, Lichtenstein, Bacon, Duchamp, Rothko, Man Ray — they are all here.

The museum was conceived by the Empress Farah Diba Pahlavi, wife of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, and opened to international acclaim in 1977. Just 15 months later, in the face of a massive popular uprising, the couple left the country on what was officially called a “vacation.” The revolution replaced the monarchy with an Islamic Republic weeks later. The new regime could have sold or destroyed the Western art masterpieces. Instead, the museum was closed, its treasures hidden in a concrete basement, and the shah’s palaces were preserved and eventually turned into museums. For years, the art collection, bought for less than $100 million dollars, was protected but unseen; by some estimates, it is now worth as much as $3 billion.

Now, Donna Stein, an American curator who lived in Tehran between 1975 and 1977 and played a small but important role in assembling the collection, has written a memoir, “The Empress and I: How an Ancient Empire Collected, Rejected and Rediscovered Modern Art.”

It tells two interlocking stories: one of a rule-driven, hierarchical, often-dysfunctional bureaucracy that bought Western art at surprisingly reasonable prices for a monarchy flush with oil money; another of the daily life of an unmarried young American woman in Old Regime Tehran.

This is a work of settling scores. Stein, 78, the retired deputy director of the Wende Museum in Los Angeles, makes clear that she feels robbed of the credit she deserves.

“Because I was a foreigner working largely in secret, my leadership role in the formation of the National Collection has never been fully acknowledged,” she wrote in the foreword. Her male superiors, she added, “boldly grabbed the credit for my aesthetic choices.” Thus, “I have finally written ‘The Empress and I’ to correct the record.”

Farah Diba Pahlavi chose a cousin, Kamran Diba, as the architect and founding director for the new museum that she would fill with modern Iranian and Western art. Stein worked behind the scenes as a researcher and adviser for Karim Pasha Bahadori, the project’s chief of staff and a childhood friend of the Empress.

Stein started small — writing an acquisition policy, building a library and identifying drawings, photographs and prints for purchase by studying auction and private gallery sale catalogs.

Soon she was organizing scouting expeditions and drafting detailed memos on major works she hoped to acquire for the collection. She helped forge relationships with dealers, collectors and curators and became a liaison between them and her superiors.

“I was the filter for quality, and I used that filter very strongly,” she said in a phone interview from Altadena in Los Angeles County, where she lives with her husband, Henry James Korn, a retired arts management specialist. “To create a statement of history and context and quality and rarity, those were the criteria, not how much something cost. In that respect, it was a dream job.”

But her role remained extremely limited. She never witnessed or participated in negotiations and did not know the prices paid for the works. Without that firsthand information, she cannot fill in some gaps in her memoir.

Stein began work while she was still living in New York. During a whirlwind 10-day buying spree in May 1975, the museum’s acquisitions team came home with 125 works that she said she had identified for purchase. They included important pieces by Picasso: a Cubist painting “Open Window on the Rue de Penthièvre in Paris,” a tapestry “Secrets (Confidences) or Inspiration,” and a bronze sculpture “Baboon and Young.” She adored the sculpture, because, Stein said, “I was looking for things that would be accessible for an uneducated audience. It was just enchanting.”

She left Iran in mid-1977, returning for a short visit when the museum opened that October.

In her memoir, Stein also tells the story of her decision to quit her job as an assistant curator at MoMA to live in Iran. “I was utterly unprepared for the shock of the intense heat as well as the complexities that living in the Third World would arouse.”

She found a one-bedroom apartment with central heating, air-conditioning and a shopping mall on the lower levels. She was allowed to travel freely throughout the country, even to remote places.

Though she decided to frame the book around Farah Diba Pahlavi, whom she refers to in the book as a “confidante,” Stein said she had only three brief encounters with the empress in Iran; her only face-to-face encounter with her after that was an interview in New York in 1991.

In an email response to written questions, Farah Diba Pahlavi said: “Donna Stein was a professional, hardworking individual who delivered results. I trusted her opinion. We have a friendly relationship, and we communicate by phone, although not too often.”

She added that “Ms. Stein established a substantial group of acquisitions in all media as the basis for a serious national collection of modern and contemporary art.”

The New York Times

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