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Sami Azar reinstated as director of Tehran's Museum of Contemporary Art following protests by artists

“This is the only time in Iran that a cultural manager has been supported by artists like this”, he tells The Art Newspaper

Dr Ali Reza Sami Azar, who resigned from his post as director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tehran in March as reported in this newspaper last month, has been re-instated in his post. In an exclusive interview with this paper, he talked about the circumstances behind this dramatic sequence of events.

With the recent swing in Iran’s political climate towards the conservatives who have, according to Dr Azar, “a restrictive attitude to art and culture”, he found himself under pressure from officials in the Ministry of Culture who “wanted to please the conservatives and were afraid of being sacked”. Exhibiting the work of Western artists and working with artists who do not follow a revolutionary or religious line is now regarded with disfavour, he says. Organising exhibitions with foreign institutions or doing shows with artists living abroad is, he says, becoming “impossible”. “We are in a conservative situation. We became conservatives by default”.

This plays havoc with the museum’s exhibition planning. “The problem is that with most of our projects we have to work a long time in advance. But now no one is prepared to support us looking ahead”. Dr Azar has had to cancel a planned Rebecca Horn show coming from Germany and is not able to make any commitments to other foreign shows. But he says his museum’s loan of a Francis Bacon painting to Edinburgh’s Museum of Modern Art later this year “will still happen”.

Cinema, music and theatre are, he says, “in even more jeopardy because of the red lines being drawn. I’ve worked for this community for six years or more and we’ve come a long way since I first started, when galleries had to get permission to do a show. They did not have experience of showing works abroad, there was no exchange of art and ideas with other countries and Iran was working in isolation. Now because people want to hold on to their jobs they’re more prepared to compromise. But I wasn’t prepared to do so, so I resigned”.

His resignation was accepted by the Ministry of Culture, where some officials were sympathetic to his position. “But then artists heard about it, and the next day they wrote letters of protest and demanded that the minister and deputy minister not accept my resignation. I want to say how much I appreciate the support of these artists, who come from all sides of the community. It was the way they united for the first time that persuaded me to take the job back. This is the only time in Iran that a cultural manager has been supported by artists like this”.

“Sami Azar’s international reputation rests not so much on what he’s achieved in terms of collaborations abroad, but on his remarkable track record in making exhibitions and encouraging artists in Iran in ways that the international community had assumed were impossible”, says Stephen Deuchar, director of Tate Britain. “I think his success lies in his willingness to encourage international interest in the Tehran Museum’s collection. He quickly responded positively to my suggestion of lending Tate the Bacon triptych, despite the risk of controversy”. Asked whether other loans between the Tate and Tehran are being discussed, Deuchar says: “we’d like to pursue education-driven initiatives in a small number of Middle East countries, including Iran.”

As for how the presidential election will affect his future, Sami Azar is fairly pragmatic “We have to find a way of working with what it presents, unless the election is a surprise. If Mr Rafsanjani [former president and the man most Iranians believe will win the presidency this year] is the same man we knew 10 years ago, then things will be very controlled. Don’t forget that President Khatami was then his culture minister and had to resign at one point over a censorship matter. The problem is that we have to manage the increased expectations of artists. They want something more and their recent support increases my responsibilities.”

o For commentary by Iranian artist Shirin Neshat, see p.35

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as '"This is the only time in Iran that a cultural manager has been supported by artists like this"'