Hired by the Empress of Artwork at Tehran’s Concealed Museum

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

You enter the Tehran Museum of Modern Artwork by an atrium that spirals downward like an inverted version of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum. Photographs 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 almost nothing fairly like the emotion of coming facial area-to-face for the very first time with its most sensational masterpiece: Jackson Pollock’s 1950 “Mural on Indian Red Floor,” a 6-by-8-foot canvas, which was created with rusty reds and layered swirls of thick, dripped paint and is regarded just one of his very best operates from his most critical interval.

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, Gentleman Ray — they are all here.

The museum was conceived by the Empress Farah Diba Pahlavi, wife of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, and opened to global acclaim in 1977. Just 15 months later on, in the facial area of a large popular uprising, the pair left the place on what was formally known as a “vacation.” The revolution replaced the monarchy with an Islamic Republic months later. The new routine could have marketed or destroyed the Western art masterpieces. Instead, the museum was shut, its treasures concealed in a concrete basement, and the shah’s palaces ended up preserved and inevitably turned into museums. For a long time, the art assortment, purchased for considerably less than $100 million dollars, was shielded but unseen by some estimates, it is now worth as a great deal as $3 billion.

Now, Donna Stein, an American curator who lived in Tehran involving 1975 and 1977 and performed a tiny but important position in assembling the assortment, has prepared a memoir, “The Empress and I: How an Ancient Empire Gathered, Turned down and Rediscovered Contemporary Artwork.”

It tells two interlocking stories: just one of a rule-pushed, hierarchical, generally-dysfunctional forms that acquired Western artwork at incredibly realistic costs for a monarchy flush with oil cash an additional of the day by day everyday living of an unmarried younger American female in Outdated Regime Tehran.

This is a operate of settling scores. Stein, 78, the retired deputy director of the Wende Museum in Los Angeles, helps make crystal clear that she feels robbed of the credit rating she deserves.

“Because I was a foreigner operating mainly in key, my leadership function in the development of the Nationwide Collection has never ever been completely acknowledged,” she wrote in the foreword. Her male superiors, she included, “boldly grabbed the credit score for my aesthetic selections.” Hence, “I have finally composed ‘The Empress and I’ to proper the file.”

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

Stein began modest — producing an acquisition coverage, constructing a library and identifying drawings, pictures and prints for buy by learning auction and personal gallery sale catalogs.

Quickly she was arranging scouting expeditions and drafting detailed memos on significant operates she hoped to get for the collection. She helped forge associations with sellers, collectors and curators and turned a liaison concerning them and her superiors.

“I was the filter for good quality, and I applied that filter extremely strongly,” she claimed in a phone job interview from Altadena in Los Angeles County, wherever she life with her partner, Henry James Korn, a retired arts management professional. “To develop a assertion of heritage and context and good quality and rarity, people were the standards, not how a great deal one thing cost. In that regard, it was a dream position.”

But her role remained really minimal. She by no means witnessed or participated in negotiations and did not know the rates paid out for the functions. Without having that firsthand info, she are unable to fill in some gaps in her memoir.

Stein started do the job although she was continue to dwelling in New York. During a whirlwind 10-working day obtaining spree in May perhaps 1975, the museum’s acquisitions staff came household with 125 is effective that she stated she had identified for obtain. They integrated crucial parts 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 Youthful.” She adored the sculpture, because, Stein said, “I was looking for factors that would be available for an uneducated audience. It was just enchanting.”

She noticed Calder’s “The Orange Fish” cell (also identified as “Ogunquit”) all through that excursion, thanks to a discussion with Klaus Perls, the owner of the Perls Galleries and Calder’s key seller in the United States. Stein and her colleagues also frequented the SoHo loft of the Museum of Modern day Artwork curator William Rubin to research Pollock’s “Mural on Indian Pink Ground” prior to its buy. “I was not the one who uncovered the painting, but I liked it enormously,” she explained.

In Iran, she described to Bahadori, whom she described as “remote” she could go months with no viewing him. Immediately after an incident in which he produced innovations, which she turned down, “he could not search me in the eye,” she wrote. In addition, she statements he knew absolutely nothing about art. “Whenever I experienced conferences with him, I felt it was my task teach him the background of artwork,” she claimed.

Inevitably she received his trust and she urged him to buy boldly: sculptures together with Alberto Giacometti’s “Standing Woman I” and “Walking Guy I” Mark Rothko’s “Sienna, Orange and Black on Darkish Brown” and “No. 2 (Yellow Heart)” Roy Lichtenstein’s “Roto Broil” and prints such as Edvard Munch’s “Self-Portrait.” She pushed for the acquisition of Francis Bacon’s “Reclining Gentleman With Sculpture” and “Last Object,” a special Dada sculpture by Person Ray fro
m his metronome collection, when they arrived up for auction.

But Bahadori was the public face of the workforce Stein was compelled to continue to be in the shadows. Her suspicion that he “had stolen the credit rating for my hard do the job elevated more than time,” Stein wrote. Her standing at the museum deteriorated when Diba was named director. “I turned the centerpiece of everyone’s drive for electrical power, and ultimately I had no function,” she said.

She even was accused of bribery. “Bribery was the way of performing in Iran, and I was accused by people today who knew greater, that I wouldn’t choose bribes,” she said.

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

In her memoir, Stein also tells the tale of her conclusion to give up her task as an assistant curator at MoMA to dwell in Iran. “I was totally unprepared for the shock of the extreme warmth as nicely as the complexities that living in the Third Entire world would arouse.”

She identified a a single-bedroom apartment with central heating, air-conditioning and a purchasing shopping mall on the reduced amounts. She was allowed to travel freely in the course of the place, even to remote sites like Rasht in the north and Bandar Abbas on the Persian Gulf.

In an period when the SAVAK, the shah’s top secret police, spied on, arrested, tortured and killed his political opponents, she said: “I lived my life routinely. I didn’t fear about talking on the telephone.”

She had Iranian buddies but also embraced the huge American expatriate neighborhood. (She describes a July 4 get together for 1,000 visitors hosted by Richard Helms, the American Ambassador and previous director of Central Intelligence, at the broad embassy compound, lengthy in advance of militants seized it and held American diplomats hostage for 444 times.)

Alcoholic beverages was legal and abundant in that period. One all-evening get together hosted by a rich younger Qajar prince at his “Hollywood-style playboy mansion” in Isfahan “turned out to be an sudden work out in debauchery,” the place some attendees drank alcohol, smoked opium or cannabis and applied cocaine, she wrote.

While she decided to frame the e book all over Farah Diba Pahlavi, whom she refers to in the ebook as a “confidante,” Stein reported she had only 3 brief encounters with the empress in Iran her only facial area-to-encounter face with her immediately after that was an job interview in New York in 1991.

In an e-mail response to penned issues, Farah Diba Pahlavi stated: “Donna Stein was a professional, hardworking particular person who sent success. I dependable her belief. We have a helpful relationship, and we communicate by telephone, despite the fact that not way too usually.”

She extra that “Ms. Stein founded a considerable group of acquisitions in all media as the foundation for a major countrywide selection of modern day and present-day artwork.”

A pretty unique seem into the record of the museum and its artworks is discovered in a constrained-edition 2018 coffee-desk book, “Iran Modern day: The Empress of Art.” A foreword by Farah Diba Pahlavi tells the tale from her place of perspective, like her private encounters with artists like Chagall, Moore, Dalí and Warhol. “We could not pay for old international masterpieces, but we could afford modern day artwork,” she wrote. She started off on a positive footing — with the French Impressionists — and moved ahead in time. Lavishly illustrated, secured in a linen clamshell presentation situation, the book will come with

white gloves and a signature canvas tote bag. It expenses $895.

As for the museum, its Western artwork selection remains intact, apart from for a Warhol portrait of Farah Diba Pahlavi — slashed extensive back at one of the previous palaces by a vandal — and Willem de Kooning’s “Woman III,” which the museum traded in 1994 for the remnants of a 16th-century guide, regarded as the Shahnameh, or E-book of Kings, containing miniatures. (Purchased for a lot less than $1 million by the Iranians, in accordance to Stein, “Woman III” sold privately in 2006 to the hedge-fund billionaire Steven A. Cohen for $137.5 million.) The Islamic Republic’s first extensive exhibition of the Western art assortment was in 2005, and some is effective, such as the Pollock, are on lasting screen. Many others, which includes Renoir’s “Gabrielle With Open up Blouse” (1907), featuring a girl with bare breasts, have by no means been publicly proven.

Right after a 32-month renovation, the museum reopened in late January with an exhibition of conceptual pictures and alternatives from 700 artworks donated by the estate of a well-recognized Iranian collector. The museum will publish its very own research of the assortment — it will have to have 6 volumes to tell the tale.

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