Ali-Reza Sami Azar, director of Tehran's Museum of Contemporary Art, has stepped down

Whilst the motivation behind his departure is unexplained, his career, driven by his reformist values, has left its mark on Iranian culture


Reliable sources in Iran have confirmed that Ali-Reza Sami Azar, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tehran, has resigned.

Dr Azar, regarded by diplomats and museum officials in the West as the most important and enlightened figure in Iran’s cultural establishment, has been responsible for opening up the country’s contemporary art scene to international collaboration.

He has been a protegé of the liberal president of Iran, Mohammed Khatami, himself a former minister of culture. Speaking to The Art Newspaper in 2002 Dr Azar said: “Artists have been greatly encouraged since Khatami came to power in 1997. We are being advised to be active in the cultural scene, to end Iran’s political isolation. The doors were closed for two decades after the 1979 Revolution, but now we are opening up and we are facing a generation that longs to know more about recent art movements”.

During his tenure, the Museum of Contemporary Art, home to the most important collection of modern Western art in the Middle East, hosted a show of British Sculpture in 2004 in which works by artists such as Hepworth and Paolozzi were shown alongside pieces by Damien Hirst.

At the show’s opening, Andrea Rose, director of Visual Arts at the British Council, said: “To be doing this exhibition shows Iran wants to open up dialogue with the West”.

Later last year, Dr Azar, director of the museum since 1998, negotiated the loan of one of the institution’s greatest works, Francis Bacon’s sexually explicit triptych Two figures lying on a bed with attendants (1968) to Tate Britain.

The Art Newspaper understands that Dr Azar’s resignation has been accepted by Hossein Marashi, his boss at the Organisation for National Heritage and Tourism, but that official notice of this is being delayed until the end of the celebrations for the Iranian New Year that started on 18 March. Despite this, artist groups have been reported as having led protests against the move.

The reasons behind Dr Azar’s resignation are not entirely clear. His role gave him responsibility also for traditional Iranian art, not an art form he chose to focus on, while his determination to engage with international movements in art may have caused him to fall foul of the hardline mullahs.

The recent swing in Iran’s political climate towards the conservatives has doubtless only added to the pressures on Dr Azar, and in the Iranian presidential election this autumn President Khatami is widely expected to be further undermined.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Iran loses a cultural ambassador to the West'