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Nuclear deal paves way for cultural diplomacy with Iran

Overtures include Louvre director’s planned visit to Tehran, while Italy lends classical sculpture

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The nuclear deal signed by Iran and the US in July, the first step to lifting sanctions, has paved the way for cultural exchanges and joint projects between Iran’s museums and their counterparts in the US and Europe. Remarkable exhibitions could be in the pipeline but first political hurdles have to be overcome.

The director of the Louvre, Jean-Luc Martinez, plans to visit Tehran for talks. The Paris museum’s head of Islamic art visited in June. France’s foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, was one of the first to meet the Iranian leader, visiting in July after the nuclear deal was agreed. Italy’s foreign minister was quick to head to Tehran, too; the country is also in the forefront of cultural exchanges, lending four classical sculptures, including one from the Vatican Museums, to the National Museum of Iran in September.

If relations between Tehran and Washington, DC, continue to improve—President Obama has threatened to veto any attempt in Congress to scupper the nuclear deal—US curators are well placed to establish closer links with their Iranian peers. Visits have already taken place; Iranian museum directors and curators travelled to the US in 2013 as part of a State Department programme, with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Lacma) on the itinerary. Los Angeles and Southern California is home to the largest American-Iranian community in the US. Linda Komaroff, Lacma’s curator of Islamic art, who has visited Tehran a dozen times in the past two decades, says that if the US does reach an accord with Iran “we will build on these existing relationships to collaborate on joint projects as well as eventually exchange loans”.

Political complexity

While many are optimistic, they are also realistic that closer links will require more than insuring loans and organising their indemnity against seizure. Sussan Babaie, a lecturer in the arts of Iran and Islam at London’s Courtauld Institute of Art, warns of Iran’s political complexity and its conservative “deep state”. She says: “There is no doubt things will change. The question is in which direction, to what degree and whether they have lasting purchase.”

Martin Roth, the director of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, who has visited Iran and held talks with high-ranking figures when in charge of Dresden State Museums and as director of exhibitions at Hanover’s Expo 2000, stresses the complexity of the politics. “I’m a fan of risk taking but I am really cautious,” he says. “Iranians are super smart and they know when the time is right. Let’s start slowly and see the establishment of diplomatic networks, so there’s something to support co-operation.” John Curtis, the chief executive of the London-based Iran Heritage Foundation, is another realist. In his former role as senior curator at the British Museum, Curtis helped to organise the loan of the Cyrus Cylinder to Tehran in 2010. He says that Iranian and Western museums are “not starting from scratch” but exhibitions take time to happen.

Growing interest

Western museums’ interest in Iranian contemporary art is growing; for example, in 2014 the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris presented Unedited History: Iran 1960-2014. Co-organised by the Centre Pompidou curator Catherine David, it travelled to Rome’s MaXXi in 2015. And while sanctions and obtaining visas to or from Iran have made travel very difficult, Iranians have gained access to Western culture and art through the internet and, this May, in its streets. The mayor of Tehran backed a ten-day display of reproductions of great works of Western and Iranian art on the city’s billboards.

The Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art has the greatest collection of US and European Modern art outside of the West; it was a project close to the heart of the deposed shah’s wife. Works by Picasso, Rothko, Warhol, Bacon and Calder, among others, were acquired just before the Iranian Revolution in 1979. The museum has lent a piece by Bacon to the Tate in London and pieces by Rothko and Calder to the Fondation Beyeler in Basel. The remarkable collection will perhaps be the most sought after for international loans along with treasures of Persian civilisation.