US museums receive surfeit of patronage for Islamic art collections

But Arab donors are in scarce supply, while Turks, Iranians and others spend freely


Donors are supporting the Islamic collections in US museums to an unprecedented degree. New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, which boasts the largest Islamic art collection in a US museum, is leading the way. The Met is well on its way to reaching its $50m fundraising goal to complete the redisplay of its collection in 15 galleries, an eight-year-long project that is due to be unveiled in the autumn of next year.

Speaking in London last month, Thomas Campbell, the museum’s director, said he hoped the galleries will help deepen the understanding of the evolution of Islamic culture at a time when the debate about Islam has “become polarised” in the city (The Art Newspaper, October, pp1 and 4). The planned opening date will be symbolic: a month after the tenth anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center.

Other US museums successfully raising funds to expand and redisplay their Islamic art collections include the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. It only began collecting in this field in 2007. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Lacma) now boasts a 1,700-strong collection. It has doubled in size since 2001. And the Detroit Institute of Art opened its new permanent Islamic art gallery in March.

But unlike their counterparts in Paris and London, so far US museums have not raised large sums from Arab donors. The Louvre Museum in Paris is creating a new Arts of Islam wing, due to open in 2012, which has largely been funded by Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal thanks to a €17m donation. In London, the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Islamic gallery, which opened in July 2006, was entirely funded with £5.4m from the Saudi Arabian Jameel family.

Arab donors have bestowed financial gifts upon US universities, however. Prince Al-Waleed gave $20m to Harvard in 2005. The same year the prince gave $20m to Washington, DC’s Georgetown University towards its Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. A number of people contacted for this article, including dealers and consultants, were reluctant to speak about the relative failure of US museums to attract similar donors from the Arab world.

Harvard and Georgetown were not put off by the fact that the Saudi prince’s proposed charitable donation of $10m to New York City after 9/11 was ultimately rejected by the then mayor Rudolph Giuliani. (The prince had said the US should address some of the issues that led to the “criminal attack” of terrorism.)

The Met’s biggest donor for its new galleries is the Turkish entrepreneur Rahmi Koç, who in 2009 donated $10m on behalf of the Vehbi Koç Foundation. The new galleries will feature spaces focusing on Ottoman art. After contributing a reported $10m, the American-Iranian donors Sharmin and Bijan Mossavar-Rahmani will have a gallery of Persian art named in their honour. He is a former OPEC delegate and Met museum trustee.

Maryam Homayoun-Eisler, who is a collector and executive editor of the soon to be published Art & Patronage: The Middle East, points out: “A lot of money has been received from nationals such as Iranian and Turkish, while there hasn’t been such a sustained interest from the Arabs.” She puts this down to a consequence of 9/11.

There has also been a shift in patronage, Eisler said. “These donations are given to galleries which may have been defined broadly as Islamic art galleries in the past, but are now being defined by their geographic terms such as the Iran galleries, the Ottoman galleries, or galleries of the Arab Lands.”

The naming and redisplay of the Met’s galleries highlights the geographic and ethnic diversity of its collection, replacing previous thematic displays. They will be called the Galleries for the Arts of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia.

On tour

Next year Lacma and the Museum of Fine Arts Houston presents “Gifts of the Sultan: the Arts of Giving at the Islamic Courts” (5 June to 5 September), a travelling exhibition, opening in Los Angeles before heading to Texas. Sponsors for the exhibition include the Hagop Kevorkian Fund, whose founder was of Turkish-Armenian descent, the National Endowment for the Humanities and Camilla Chandler Frost, a Lacma trustee.

Linda Komaroff, Lacma’s curator of Middle Eastern art who is overseeing the show, hopes that it will chime with a shift in the character of America’s foreign policy, “emphasising a shared humanity rather than our singular histories”.

The majority of donations to Lacma have come from American and Iranian benefactors. Contributions and acquisitions effectively doubled in the wake of 9/11, Komaroff said. “There has been a building of interest in the field since then and that has affected people giving,” she added. The largest donation to the collection comes from Camilla Chandler Frost.

In 2002 she bequeathed 750 pieces purchased from the Maan Madina collection, reportedly worth about $15m.

Komaroff is keen to include contemporary Islamic art to make links with the past. The “Gifts of the Sultan” show will have a section that features work from three artists who will reinterpret the exhibition’s theme.

In Texas, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston has raised over $8m to build its collection from scratch in just three years, starting in 2007. The majority of members for its two collectors’ circles, called the Arts of the Islamic World” and “Friends of the Arts of the Islamic World”, are of Iranian descent. They include former Iranian diplomat and Houston-based philanthropist, Hushang Ansary. Sima Ladjevardian, the Iranian-American co-chairman of one of the museum’s collecting circles, said: “The [project] was started in order to show a positive angle to the culture.” Recent purchases on behalf of the museum include a scribe’s box from the late 15th-century Nasrid Dynasty and a 16th-century golden horn.

• Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper with the headline "Money pours in to add lustre to Islamic art collections"