The legacy of Iran’s last Empress, Farah Pahlavi (née Diba) – wife of the late Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi- is unquestionably her patronage of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art (TMoCA). With 1970s Iran flush with oil money, the modern Empress set off with a nearly unlimited budget to amass an art collection that represented a fusion of Western and Eastern art.
It’s in said context that the 78-year-old former Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) curator Donna Stein writes her highly controversial 2021 memoir, The Empress and I: How an Ancient Empire Collected, Rejected, and Rediscovered Modern Art. Stein’s disputed account – which has faced equal parts praise and criticism – chronicles her time working for Her Imperial Majesty’s Private Secretariat between 1975–77.
At the end of Stein’s tenure – and in celebration of Empress Pahlavi’s 39th birthday – the TMoCA would open its Neo-Brutalist doors filled to the brim with a variety of modern art that far eclipsed any other collection outside of Europe and the United States. Despite the advent of the Iranian revolution a mere two years later, even Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini could not bring himself to dismantle the museum. Initially purchased for less than $100 million, the TMoCA’s expansive collection is currently estimated to be valued at over $3 billion.
An American in Tehran
‘Because I was a foreigner working largely in secret, my leadership role in forming the National Collection has never been fully acknowledged,’ writes Stein in her book’s foreword. She argues that her male Iranian superiors ‘boldly grabbed the credit for my aesthetic choices… so I have finally written The Empress and I to correct the record.’
Having jumped at the chance to work on the TMoCA project in 1975, Stein found herself thrust from the gritty streets of New York City to the sun-baked ones of Iran’s capital. Upon her arrival, Stein began working behind the scenes as both a researcher and advisor for Karim Pasha Bahadori – the project’s chief of staff and a childhood friend of the Empress.
While her initial responsibility appears to have been writing the museum’s acquisition policy, Stein purports she soon began organising scouting expeditions, identifying potential purchases, and acting as a liaison between artists, gallerists, and her superiors. ‘I was the filter for quality, and I used that filter very strongly,’ Stein told the New York Times.
Recounting her experience of being a single woman in Tehran, Stein recalls the Empress’ staff referring to her as the ‘woman who lives alone’ – despite knowing her name. ‘This unfortunate phrase was also used to describe women of questionable virtue,’ explains Stein, ‘It was inconceivable that a woman would live by herself.’
Given her trying experience at the centre of Iran’s most ambitious artistic endeavour of the 20th-century, Stein makes no attempt to hide the fact that her book aims to settle some old scores. However, the Empress – for whom Stein claims to have been a ‘confidante’- emerges from the memoir relatively unscathed.
Palace intrigue abounds
Arguably the most riveting portions of The Empress and I chronicle the palace intrigue that became ubiquitous during any major art acquisition. Believing she’d earned the professional respect of Bahadori, Stein recalls personally lobby him to acquire Mark Rothko’s No. 2 Yellow Center (1954); Francis Bacon’s Reclining Man With Sculpture (1961); and Roy Lichtenstein’s Roto Broil (1961).
To the chagrin of her former Iranian colleagues, Stein also takes credit for the museum’s historic acquisition of Paul Gauguin’s Still Life With Japanese Woodcut (1889) writing, ‘I was thrilled that we obtained the Gauguin, which I considered among his greatest still-life paintings.’ Adding that the unique canvas, ‘Demonstrated [Gauguin’s] interest in Japanese ukiyo-e woodcuts…thereby anticipating the cross-cultural dialogue that shaped the philosophy of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art.’
So why is Stein’s name nowhere to be found on the museum documents that record these lofty acquisitions? According to her, the answer is simple: misogyny. Stein alleges that while her star continued to rise, Bahadori – the public face of the museum team whom she had rejected romantically – took credit for her work and forced her to remain in the background.
After the Empress’ cousin Kamran Diba was named the TMoCA’s director, Stein asserts that her reputation deteriorated rapidly – hinting that Diba may have been envious of her high standing with the Empress. Eventually, Stein was ousted due to accusations of bribery which she maintains are false and were contrived to drive her from Tehran.
Given the immense cultural pride the TMoCA brings to the Iranian people, it’s understandable that they seek to protect its legacy from perceived slights. On numerous occasions Stein’s general tone feels condescending, as she describes the museum’s audience as ‘uneducated’ and refers to Iran as the ‘Third World’ – both evocative of 19th-century orientalist sentiments.
Diba, who lives exiled in France, voiced his objections to the assertions levelled in The Empress and I. In a formal statement to Artnet News, Diba counters Stein’s narrative stating she was primarily involved in ‘building the photography collection’ – a holding he doesn’t consider to be particularly impressive.
Speaking with Tatler, celebrated photographer Cyrus Mahboubian – who’s of Iranian heritage and has been presented to the Empress- remarks: ‘Regardless of whether Donna Stein’s role in building the collection was pivotal or only peripheral, let’s not forget that Iran is a country with thousands of years of civilisation and artistic output.’
There’s also the issue of Stein’s characterisation of her relationship with the Empress – whom she only ever met face-to-face three times during her work in Iran. However, Stein claims that the two established an over-the-phone rapport between their formal encounters that continues today.
While critics cast doubt on the veracity of such claims, the Empress is on record with the New York Times this past year saying: ‘Donna Stein was a professional, hardworking individual who delivered results. I trusted her opinion. We have a friendly relationship, and we communicate by phone, although not too often.’
Lasting love for an exiled Empress
Tuning out the controversy surrounding Stein’s memoir and her insensitive language, what becomes irrefutably clear is that many Iranians have a lasting love for their exiled Empress – and the TMoCA remains a symbol of her love for them.
Thanks to Empress Farah Pahlavi, great Western artists like Salvador Dali, Andy Warhol, and Henry Moore, engaged in a dynamic interplay with their contemporary Iranian counterparts. Contrary to Stein’s unilateral view, the Empress facilitated a reciprocal dialogue between East and West which still endures – an investment in soft power not even a revolution could overshadow.
From her home in Paris, Iran’s last Empress continues to champion the artistic prowess of her homeland and support the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art through her collaboration with erudite publishers like Assouline – who produced the glorious (and pricey) tome Iran Modern: The Empress of Art in 2018.
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