Museum as Microcosm: The Historical and Cultural Legacy of The Tehran Museum of Art

By Jordan Amirkhani
Submitted to Session P4907 (Contested Cultures of Revolution: Cultural Production in the Islamic Republic of Iran, 2017 Annual Meeting
Art/Art Hist
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
This paper examines the major discourses on the interpretation and reception of Western art in Iran during the final years of the Pahlavi regime and the specific historical, cultural, and political conditions surrounding the construction of the Tehran Museum of Modern Art (now known as the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art), designed by the Iranian architect Kahmran Diba in 1977.

Built within the Laleh Park complex—the site of bloody clashes between revolutionary protestors, anti-Pahlavi groups, and the Iranian government during the Islamic Revolution of 1979—the Tehran Museum of Modern Art remains a fraught public symbol, operating simultaneously as a site of Western influence, Pahlavi decadence, and revolutionary history. At the same time, the museum is well-known internationally for its rich holdings of American and European 20th-century modern art, including major works by the Abstract Expressionist painter Jackson Pollock and the American Pop artist Andy Warhol. Bought for the museum by Farah Pahalvi, the ousted shah’s influential twin sister, over the course of the 1970s, this collection of Western art functions as a material time-capsule of significant American and European avant-garde modes of artistic experimentation prominent in the 1950s and 1960s—but the values, ideas, and aesthetic of this collection clash starkly with the cultural and social mandates of post-revolutionary Iran. Given its blatant incompatibility with religious norms and values, why has the Islamic Republic continued to protect this collection?

As this paper argues, Iran’s protection of this collection reveals larger ideological struggles over the meaning and control over the historical and political legacy of the revolution, as well as the country’s conflicted interest in engaging the attention of the international contemporary art world. As the recent cancellations of major international exchanges and long-term exhibition projects between the Tehran Museum and other European art institutions eager to collaborate with Iranian artists suggest, questions of whether and how Iran engages with the outside world still persist. This paper will shape an understanding of The Tehran Museum as a microcosm for these continuing political and cultural struggles.