TEHRAN, Iran, March 7, 2008 — -- Last week the Iranian government gave ABC News special access into its international art collection, a distinguished group of works amassed during the reign of the shah of Iran.
Ironically,the collection, estimated to be worth $3 billion, has spent most of the last 30 years locked in a basement vault, while Iran has become an Islamic republic that eschews any ties to the secular world.
From a renowned Jackson Pollock drip painting "Mural on an Indian Red Ground," to DeKoonings' "Light in August," to pop works by Warhol, Lichentstien and Oldenburg, the collection is widely considered to be one of the finest 20th century Western art collections in the world.
The rare tour was an example of what's called "track two" diplomacy: building cultural and social ties between Iran and the United States at a time when they're officially at odds.
Museum director Habibollah Sadeghi, an artist, was appointed by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He spoke to ABC News at Tehran's Museum of Contemporary Art. Below are excerpts from the interview.
What are your future plans for this exhibit? Why not have it on display all the time?
Given [the tone of] society since the revolution, the museum needed to make the visual approach more compatible with our everyday social routine. Now we need more space. We are certainly hopeful to have a permanent museum to present Iran with this global contemporary art in a larger, more lasting space.
Would the museum ever sell works in the collection?
As is the case anywhere, museums, along with the local authorities, must make certain decisions. They sometimes sell, sometimes exchange. But our choice so far, has been to look at this as a steady opportunity to acquire. We are more shopper than seller.
During the war [with Iraq, 1980-1988] and the reconstruction era, [we] had less opportunity to complete our collection. We hope next year we will be able to buy pieces from the greatest contemporary painters in the world, continuing on our previous purchases of works by American and European painters. Then Iran, as a major collector of universal art, will be able to display its own perspective in the language and literature of contemporary art. We have told this to the [parliament] authorities and they have accepted gladly.
Do you have your eyes on any pieces in particular?
The method of purchase is based on the period and style of the painters to help round out our collection. We are considering buying new paintings produced after the American Pop Art era. We have identified between 50 and 80 paintings and hope to buy them from private collectors and other museums after our specialists decide which are the best and most appropriate for our collection, as we've done in the past.
We hope to buy up to 100 pieces from prominent painters in the United States and Europe next year. As we view other cultures respectfully, we expect that the others respect our history, our religious and spiritual and Islamic beliefs and culture.
Is it safe to say that you expect the collection ... will always remain intact?
I don't know whether the Metropolitan Museum in New York, or other museums, constantly talk about selling their work. I've heard in the media during the last three years about [our museum selling], and I'm not clear why that is. I believe this art belongs to mankind's art collection and is not to be sold by our specialists. We are supposed to keep these global treasures. We would really like to show the works of the greats here, like Picasso, Matisse and others. Still, we will lend some of these pieces to other museums in the world so that others may enjoy these achievements of humanity.
How is this collection maintained?
It is maintained in exact, scientific and first-rate conditions, much like the British Museum, or the Louvre, or the Metropolitan Museum, ensuring the proper maintenance of the pieces, paying close attention to their storage climate, and looking after them like dear life.
How do the people of Iran feel about the international collection?
Iranian people are all really interested in the works of esteemed and much appreciated American painters. We have a large collection of French sculptures by Rodin and others, which appear in our catalog. Over the past 30 years we have diligently safeguarded historic [art] treasures from Japan, China, Russia, US, and other countries. Today, Iranians follow the arts news and developments in the US, a country our people consider their friend. We hope that the two nations can see each other and exchange ideas and experiences through the window of arts.
Throughout the history, the Iranian people have loved and respected the arts of different cultures and other countries. If you go to the Louvre Museum, you will notice that entering cultural gate, you will have to pass through Iran's gates. I once said just as I feel close to [Iranian painter] Kamaleddin Behzad and his works, I feel close to Jackson Pollock and his works. We feel honored and special to be custodians of such important pieces of art by renowned artists from all over the world. We will put them on display at every chance.
There are certain sensitivities with subjects like nudity in art. How do you explain these issues to people unfamiliar with Iran?
Each museum has two different functions; individual and public. Individual is like when a medical student is in the anatomy room. Each painter should know the skeleton, muscle system, skin and anatomy in general. Our museum is not a place just to display the artwork, it is an academy, a college. Our museum is an art college and our youth come and use these images and sometimes copy them to have more visual knowledge.
It is true that our society is a special society with its own public behavior. But I cannot keep researchers or someone who is studying anatomy from viewing the efforts of Renoir on the body of a woman. For my students, I show them these works as though I were a doctor, for them to see all the muscles and organs and see the relation between them. So, for us there is no erotic meaning attached to it.
What do you wish the West and America in particular know about this museum, collection, or Iranian culture in general?
I am sure this interest among cultures can be a way for the artists of the world to present the best mankind has to offer to each other. We are peaceful people and have gifts for the people of the world, like the words of [poet Jalal ad-Din] Rumi and paintings of Kamal Al-din Behzad. I know your kind nation can look at my nation with peace and love. The only wish that I have is that the two nations look at each other meaningfully. I do not mean to be too political, but I remember the morning that I saw the bitter incident of 9/11. I was with my family, my wife, my daughter and my son -- all of whom are painters -- we were eating breakfast. It was like at single moment our hearts all stopped. Then we see innocent people throwing themselves down from the top of the world. How can I explain this bitterness and the fact that we shared this pain and suffering? And just as your nation cried over this tragedy, our people cried as well.
How would you describe the modern art scene in Iran and its role within modern life here, in this country? Particularly as a form of personal expression?
After the revolution, the younger generation of Iranian artists desired to define their own identity and their position in our current world. They didn't want to be mere consumers of the experiences and knowledge of others.
Over the past few years, in different cultural activities such as cinema and drama, there has been a very strong presence. As the famous painters of the world such as Pollock, Picasso, Van Gogh, Gauguin, etc. have given the contemporary world so many gifts, the great Iranian painters such as Kamaleddin Behzad and Sultan Muhammad give the world beautiful expression and meaning.