Letters to the editor | Donna Stein’s book about the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art is ‘misleading’ and has ‘inaccuracies’

Readers respond to an article about a new publication detailing the founding of the Iranian museum

The Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art cc Farzaneh

The Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art cc Farzaneh

The record is in need of correction

It seems that the record is in need of correction in regards to your article “The American who brought Modern masterpieces to Iran” (The Art Newspaper, May 2021, p62).

It is indeed true that the establishment of Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art (TMoCA), a project nine years in the making, deserves to be fully explored. There is a great deal of documentation, including original deeds of purchase, interviews, and written accounts, including by the architect and founding director Kamran Diba, the chief of staff Karim Pasha Bahadori, the chief curator David Galloway and Empress Farah Pahlavi herself. There are also numerous accounts by highly regarded academics, including Fereshteh Daftary, Shiva Balaghi, Sussan Babaie and Talinn Grigor amongst others.

However, that the lack of a definitive record should allow credit for this incredible feat of 1970s Iran, and a unique museum and collection in the region—especially for its time—to be high-jacked by a minor player is unacceptable. Donna Stein spent two years in Iran employed by Farah Pahlavi’s private secretariat to advise on the acquisition of prints, photographs and books. However, in the foreword to her book, she claims the collection spent around $100m on contemporary works she herself personally selected, a claim she makes based on a handful of documents in her own hand. That claim is false. The title and cover photo [of the book], indicate an intimate relationship with the Empress, even though, by her own account, Stein encountered her only three times in Iran and each time in a crowd. Despite the brevity of her stay and her obvious lack of curiosity or affection for Iran and its people, Stein seems to think she has the authority to speak for and over the enormous team behind the creation of TMoCA and to offer a candid portrait of the 1970s. It is hard not to be repelled by Stein’s narrative, who, in addition to those claims, employs an outmoded, Orientalist language, both in her portrayal of Iran and its people, as if decades of post-colonial discourse had never existed. Indeed, the title of the book, The Empress and I, announces that stance willingly, recalling [the character played by] Yul Brynner in The King and I, an Oriental despot in need of the education of Miss Anna. [Stein’s] book is fantastical on many levels.

It is a shame that a well-regarded publishing house like Skira Editore would not apply the usual academic standards for a book purporting to be redefining such an important project. It is normal that experts and principal players be consulted, both in the commissioning stage and in peer reviews, and there are legions of established and respected Iranian and non-Iranian writers on these topics. Yet, in this book inaccuracies and personal fantasies persist.

Finally, it would have been desirable that The Art Newspaper, so internationally read and respected, would have acknowledged and consulted some of those Iranians and non-Iranians involved in its cultural scene, be they the founders and key players at the time or the academics, curators and writers who have written so thoroughly about it in recent years.

Maryam Eisler, photographer and former chair of Middle East North Africa Acquisitions Committee at the Tate

Shirley Elghanian, chief executive, MOP Foundation  

Ina Sarikhani Sandmann, director, Sarikhani Collection

Donna Stein's misleading narrative demeans Iran’s culture

I refer to the article “The American who brought Modern masterpieces to Iran”, (The Art Newspaper, May 2021, p62) in reference to Donna Stein’s recent self-serving screed, The Empress and I, published by Skira Editore. Whilst one can understand people’s ignorance regarding other countries and cultures, or their lack of knowledge of facts and history, nevertheless one expects a better standard of interpretative delivery than what the article provides The Art Newspaper’s international audience.

Stein has suddenly appeared out of the woodwork 44 years after the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art’s (TMoCA) launch to promote herself with a nuanced, misleading narrative that demeans Iran’s culture and all the principals involved in the concept, planning, execution and delivery of TMoCA.

First off, the very title presumes a role and prominence to Stein’s position far beyond her secondary curatorial remit, as clearly stated in your article as her responsibilities were: “‘purchasing prints that would represent the various movements and tendencies up to the present day’, running and organising catalogues and exhibitions, and ‘training Iranians to run the department after your departure’”. They did not include Stein’s exaggerated claims of selecting major artworks chosen and bought for TMoCA.

Neither did they include directorial, curatorial, administrative or architectural inputting. Iran, after all, was the 16th-largest economy in the world in terms of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) at the time with a fast-moving, sophisticated, outgoing culture and the most modern-minded, affluent society in the region. As one present at the creation [of the museum], we did not need the services of a novitiate whose entire work experience included working for “six years on the curatorial staff at [New York’s Museum of Modern Art]” to guide its rocket-fuelled bustle to modernism.

Stein’s own words as quoted in the article themselves undercut the veracity of her claims, without any evidence for her supposed principal role in the multi-million-dollar purchases of artworks that she avers. Being “particularly pleased” at the purchase of a Giacometti does not translate into her having any role in its acquisition. Instead, she “got to go shopping for great art books—with cost as no object” in New York.

As for Stein’s “bracing style” as a raconteur, according to your article, and her feminist outlooks in an “all-encompassing Islamic cultural environment”. Perhaps she’s forgotten the “Islamic” raves and parties she attended, indulging to the maximum as a single woman suddenly thrust into a lifestyle beyond her wildest dreams. Partaking liberally in the most happening capital city in the entire region, with Iranian women emancipated, equal under the law and having the right to vote. Functioning at every level of society as judges, ambassadors, ministers, academics, artists, musicians, singers, actors, policewomen, soldiers, pilots, athletes… need I go on?

The Empress Farah Pahlavi herself was emblematic of this Iranian feminist, activist drive, acting as a role-model. Promoting a wildly ambitious cultural and artistic agenda in her game-changing manner—perhaps you can name another female leader in Asia at the time with a similar scorecard?

As for Stein’s hallowed “long career as a curator that ended as a deputy director of the Wende Museum of the Cold War in California…” Really? What other major art curatorial engagements has she rendered service to during this period that would not permit her “time to write [the book] before” now? Having mixed chippings of reality with a load of fanciful claims for promoting her book sales, Stein has managed beyond her wildest imaginings to stir up controversy around what is, after all, the most important Modern and contemporary art collection in the world outside Europe and the US. A project conceived and executed by Iranians, promoted through to completion by Empress Farah Pahlavi with the Shah of Iran’s sanction.

Hossein Amirsadeghi, publisher, TransGlobe Publishing

Both the author of The Empress and I, Donna Stein, and its publishers Skira Editore declined to comment on the above letters