Tehran Museum Show in Berlin Fell Prey to Politics, Says Museum Founder Kamran Diba

By Azadeh Karimi & Ali Eshtyagh

Kamran Diba was the architect and founding director of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art (TMoCA), which ranks today as the most extensive collection of Western modern art outside Europe and North America. The collection was constituted under the patronage of Empress Farah Pahlavi. The museum was inaugurated in 1977, just before the Islamic Revolution.

TMoCA architect and founding director, Kamran Diba, in front of a photo from the museum’s inauguration. In it, he’s adjacent to the left shoulder of Empress Farah Pahlavi. Photograph: Jila Dejam, Kayhan London©

Late last year, Western and Iranian masterpieces from the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art were scheduled to travel to Berlin for a historic exhibition. Yet Iran prevented the works from leaving the country, leading the Berlin museum authority to cancel the event. Had it gone ahead, the Berlin show would have marked the first time that the collection would have been displayed outside Iran.

Kayhan London recently interviewed Mr. Diba to hear his views on the exhibition’s cancellation.

Mr. Diba, in your opinion, why was the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art exhibition in Berlin not allowed?

They turned this into a political issue, and some documents were published which created uncertainty. The issue was sending the paintings to Germany. The publicity [around that] worked in favor of the opponents of the exhibition.

Critics of the exhibition also claimed that the paintings risked being confiscated upon leaving Iran.

These paintings belong to the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art. The budget for their acquisition did not belong to the Shah and the Shahbanou: it came from the State. We had a board of directors [at the museum], and it included no-one from the Royal court.

The paintings at the Saheb Gharani-e and Niavaran Palaces belonged to the Shah and Shahbanou, but the paintings in this museum were not their property. These are false allegations coming from inside Iran.

The museum’s management has declared that the documents pertaining to the works have been lost.

I don’t know what has been lost! If they wish to find out, why don’t they contact me? For them, this museum is like a dark spot from the past. They don’t want to talk of the past and rekindle the memories they have of the people [who were there before]. They are waiting for all of us to pass away, to pay tribute to us once we are dead.

If they have lost a document, why don’t they ask me? They have never contacted me.

I am certain that the documents remaining from my period of the museum’s management are clear and complete.

What is your assessment of the post-revolutionary management of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art?

The museum is not active. This is because Iran’s leaders have neither the determination nor the interest. If you look carefully, you will notice that art [in Iran] is only present in the private sector. Our public sector can barely run the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art. It can only provide funding for its administration and security.

One of the criticisms made by some political factions regarding the treasures acquired by the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art is that they were acquired with the revenues generated by Iran’s oil.

The nation’s budget came from oil and continues to do so still today. Do we have any exports other than oil? The works I acquired cost about $4 million [at the time].

My expenditures are perfectly clear and I have the supporting documentation to back them up.

Many wonder whether Mrs. Iran Darroudi was the person who first came up with the idea of the museum. What is your view?

I can give you a thousand ideas right now – what matters is that you go ahead and implement an idea! In those days, you needed a program and a budget, and you had to be able to realize the idea.

People wanted to travel to the moon from the time of Hafez. Should it be said, then, that it wasn’t President John F. Kennedy who made landing on the moon possible, but those who came before him? Didn’t anyone else know what a museum was previously, for one individual to have come up with the idea of building a museum?

Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, opened in 1977

Some question why the Shahbanou placed her cousin [Mr. Diba] at this job. Well, if it weren’t for me, this project would never have seen the light of day! I worked on the project, I was behind it, and I completed it; who would have done this work otherwise? It took nine years, because no one was behind this project, and no one wanted to do it.

At one point, there was a proposal for Alvar Aalto, one of the most prominent architects of the 20th century, to build a museum in Shiraz. He drew the architectural plans and sent them in. Does this museum exist today in Shiraz? You have to be behind a project for it to happen; an idea alone is not enough.