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Proposal to privatise Tehran’s Modern art museum causes alarm

Director denies that politicians want to transfer collection to private foundation

A reported proposal from Iran’s Ministry of Guidance and Islamic Culture that Tehran’s Museum of Contemporary Art (TMoCA) and its extraordinary art collection of Western and Iranian art be transferred to a private foundation has caused deep alarm in the arts community.

The museum’s collection includes Modern masterworks acquired before the Islamic Revolution. As last summer’s nuclear deal with Iran has led to an easing of sanctions, museums in Europe and the US have been vying to borrow the works by Picasso, Pollock, Rothko and Warhol among others, may of which have not been seen in the West for 40 years.

An official letter was sent to the museum proposing that it is transferred to the Rudaki Foundation, a source familiar with the institution tells The Art Newspaper. The foundation already supervises the Tehran Symphony Orchestra.  

With a protest planned for the weekend, and worried reports beginning to swirl on social media, the museum’s director issued assurances that the plan had been “dissolved” for now, we understand.  There has been no official statement on any plan for the transfer.

"That this collection has remained intact throughout political shifts in Iran is a testament to the power of art and the centrality of culture to the Iranian people," says Shiva Balaghi, a specialist in Middle Eastern art and a visiting scholar at Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island. "This collection ultimately belongs to the people and should remain in the museum, cared for by art professionals. In turn, the museum's budget should reflect its mission to preserve, document, and exhibit this collection that has universal importance beyond Iran's borders as well."

There has been growing media attention on the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art and its collection. A high-profile opening last month of an exhibition by the Belgian artist Wim Delvoye (until 12 May), which fills the museum’s galleries, was extensively covered in the Iranian media.  

With the partial ending of Western sanctions after the nuclear deal, the reports over the museum were seen as part of the running tug-of-war in Iranian politics between elected officials and the religious authorities. Reformists strengthened their hands in elections in Tehran in February.  

Inaugurated in 1977, the museum was designed by the architect Kamran Diba who was its first director. Its gardens and grounds feature works by Henry Moore and Alberto Giacometti, but it received few visitors until recently.