Hired by the empress of art at Tehran's hidden museum

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Hired by the empress of art at Tehran's hidden museum
The curator and author Donna Stein at home in Los Angeles, March 5, 2021. Stein feels robbed of the credit she said she deserves for her work in assembling the collection of modern masters at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art. Diana Markosian/The New York Times.

by Elaine Sciolino

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- 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-foot-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 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, 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 spotted Calder’s “The Orange Fish” mobile during that trip, thanks to a conversation with Klaus Perls, the owner of the Perls Galleries and Calder’s main dealer in the United States. Stein and her colleagues also visited the SoHo loft of Museum of Modern Art curator William Rubin to study Pollock’s “Mural on Indian Red Ground” before its purchase. “I wasn’t the one who found the painting, but I liked it enormously,” she said.

In Iran, she reported to Bahadori, whom she described as “remote”; she could go months without seeing him. After an incident in which he made advances, which she rejected, “he couldn’t look me in the eye,” she wrote. In addition, she claims he knew nothing about art. “Whenever I had meetings with him, I felt it was my job teach him the history of art,” she said.

Eventually she gained his trust and she urged him to buy boldly: sculptures including Alberto Giacometti’s “Standing Woman I” and “Walking Man I”; Mark Rothko’s “Sienna, Orange and Black on Dark Brown” and “No. 2 (Yellow Center)”; Roy Lichtenstein’s “Roto Broil”; and prints such as Edvard Munch’s “Self-Portrait.” She pushed for the acquisition of Francis Bacon’s “Reclining Man With Sculpture” and “Last Object,” a unique Dada sculpture by Man Ray from his metronome series, when they came up for auction.

But Bahadori was the public face of the team; Stein was forced to stay in the shadows. Her suspicion that he “had stolen the credit for my hard work increased over time,” Stein wrote. Her standing at the museum deteriorated when Diba was named director. “I became the centerpiece of everyone’s push for power, and eventually I had no role,” she said.

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

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 like Rasht in the north and Bandar Abbas on the Persian Gulf.

In an era when the SAVAK, the shah’s secret police, spied on, arrested, tortured and killed his political opponents, she said: “I lived my life regularly. I didn’t worry about talking on the phone.”

She had Iranian friends but also embraced the large American expatriate community. (She describes a July 4 party for 1,000 guests hosted by Richard Helms, the American Ambassador and former director of Central Intelligence, at the vast embassy compound, long before militants seized it and held American diplomats hostage for 444 days.)

Alcohol was legal and plentiful in that era. One all-night party hosted by a wealthy young Qajar prince at his “Hollywood-style playboy mansion” in Isfahan “turned out to be an unexpected exercise in debauchery,” where some guests drank alcohol, smoked opium or hashish and used cocaine, she wrote.

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

A very different look into the history of the museum and its artworks is found in a limited-edition 2018 coffee-table book, “Iran Modern: The Empress of Art.” A foreword by Farah Diba Pahlavi tells the story from her point of view, including her personal encounters with artists like Chagall, Moore, Dalí and Warhol. “We could not afford old foreign masterpieces, but we could afford modern art,” she wrote. She started on a sure footing — with the French impressionists — and moved forward in time. Lavishly illustrated, protected in a linen clamshell presentation case, the book comes with white gloves and a signature canvas tote bag. It costs $895.

As for the museum, its Western art collection remains intact, except for a Warhol portrait of Farah Diba Pahlavi — slashed long ago at one of the former palaces by a vandal — and Willem de Kooning’s “Woman III,” which the museum traded in 1994 for the remnants of a 16th-century book, known as the Shahnameh, or Book of Kings, containing miniatures. (Purchased for less than $1 million by the Iranians, according to Stein, “Woman III” sold privately in 2006 to hedge-fund billionaire Steven A. Cohen for $137.5 million.) The Islamic Republic’s first comprehensive exhibition of the Western art collection was in 2005, and some works, such as the Pollock, are on permanent display. Others, including Renoir’s “Gabrielle With Open Blouse” (1907), featuring a woman with naked breasts, have never been publicly shown.

After a 32-month renovation, the museum reopened in late January with an exhibition of conceptual photography and selections from 700 artworks donated by the estate of a well-known Iranian collector. The museum will publish its own study of the collection — it will require six volumes to tell the story.

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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