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The Art of Being a Gallerist in Iran

Iranian art has been the highlight of many international exhibitions in recent years, the interest both inside and outside the country has been intensifying and the market is thriving.

Although galleries and cultural institutions inside Iran are restricted only to function within a set of tightly enforced rules and regulations, Tehran is now home to many art galleries - about 46 new galleries have opened in past two years alone according to Iran’s director of Visual Arts Office for the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance - and the number keeps rising.

In this interview, Leila Sajjadi talks to three of the most active and best-known Tehran based gallerists about the past, present and future of Iranian visual arts. Lili Golestan of Golestan Gallery is one of the pioneers of the profession in the country, Nazila Nobashari directs Aaran Gallery, a relatively young gallery that is active in promoting avant garde and courageous art in the scene and Omid Tehrani of Assar Art Gallery, who plays an active role in introducing and promoting modern and contemporary Iranian art to the International art scene.

 - How has the Iranian art landscape changed in the past ten years?

LG: The most significant event in my view has been that Iranian art entered the international market through auctions and this has been having both negative and positive effects. Auction houses of London and Dubai introduced new collectors to Iranian paintings; therefore Iranian art found a new market but this on the other hand had a very negative effect on the domestic art market inside the country.  Prices of art works saw illogical price rise in the auctions and this caused artists not to be able to sell in the domestic market. This has had a very negative effect on the business side of running galleries. I personally have tried to hold prices of arts I promote at reasonable level and have been able to carry on selling to public.

NN: A whole generation has come of age, having had to put up with limitations and scarcities and controls in their private lives and at universities. Their language is bold and brazen and they are determined to make their way in the wider world. The international success of some young artists has led the others to believe in themselves and to gain more self-confidence. Access to the Internet, and therefore the international art scene, has contributed a lot to progress of young artists and there are more venues to show art, both at governmental and private spaces.

OT: I think what has been especially significant is the rising number of places that art can now be shown as opposed to how few they were during the war right after the revolution.  Also in the past few years Iranian art have been internationally noticed and praised through auctions and international exhibitions and that has created a whole new market for the arts of this country.
- What would you look for in the works of art you decide to promote?

LG: I look for innovation; I like my artists to keep renewing themselves. I don’t like repetition and I stress this point to the artists I promote if I see them repeat themselves and I try to come up with new and fresh ideas for the exhibitions I set up in my gallery.

NN: What interests me is originality of course and unique styles. I prefer multi-disciplined artists with subtle socio-political outlook.

OT: Well,you can’t show everything and anything in Iran and so you are obliged to have a relatively conservative approach in this profession.  I have gained a specific character to the mood of the stuff I have shown throughout the years. What I promote is mainly focused on artists in a specific age group who do figurative painting.  Social subjects attract me but I normally don’t believe or enjoy works which are focused on political and particular traditional aspects of life here that have become fashionable for a while.

- Why paintings are still the leading art form in the Iranian art market? Or has this changed recently?

LG: This is mainly because of old habits and attitudes towards the arts here. We have a long way to go until we can establish other forms of artistic expressions such as sculptures, installations, video art etc in our art market and consider them as important as paintings. Even with paintings there aren’t many buyers. Sales are among a relatively small group of enthusiasts. I like attracting general public to like a piece of art and buy it for their pleasure. I like to be able to cultivate the notion in people, that they can buy art and enjoy having it with the money they have spent on it.

NN: Paintings are preferred here, for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is the ease of appreciation of values of paintings in comparison with photography or installation pieces. Most buyers are in the age bracket of 40 to 60 and not always acquainted with contemporary art. Production costs for installations and sculptural works are quite high and often the final product is not up to acceptable quality that would attract serious collectors, but the market is changing very fast. There is great interest from Iranians living abroad as well as international collectors, who are more inclined towards contemporary pieces these days than paintings.

OT: I think this is very much the case everywhere and not specific to Iran.  Video art or photography are true to be faster to complete and get into the market and a lot more available, but still, I would say 90% to 95% of the real art market’s attention has always been and still is focused on paintings and frankly I think that it will remain this way.
- How do you feel about the Auctions and Art Fairs? Are you a participant in selling or buying through them?

LG:  I have never participated in either of them.  The games one should play behind the scenes of auction houses are not to my taste. I am not a player on that level. I don’t like and I don’t have the attitude you must have to get involved.  Once I went to one of Dubai’s auctions just to see the mood and to weigh my judgment and I got the feeling that I was right; so I never participate.  On the other hand I find Art fairs interesting but they are very expensive to participate in and I know that it would be very beneficial to my gallery and to my artists if I do get involved but frankly I don’t have the budget for it.

NN: We have no dealings with auction houses. That is the business of collectors and not galleries or artists. It is a secondary market and not the play field of young artists. As for art fairs, we have participated and although there are quite a lot of hard work and high costs involved, indeed it’s good exposure for galleries and artists.

OT: Art fairs and auctions are two completely different areas! I participate in both for different reasons.  Auction lovers are so different to art fairs goers. People I consult with how and which works of art to invest in auctions are normally people who have the energy but not the patience. These people normally don’t enjoy going to art fairs but love to invest in works of art.  Art fairs are a whole different atmosphere; you would get involved because you love art and love discovering new art.  I like both of these two worlds, I make money in auctions through buying and selling and I spend that money on art fairs.  I very much like for my gallery to be in art fairs and love to carry on being in them.  In art fairs if you’re a relatively young gallery, it will take time for visitors and buyers to trust you in what you show them, I like this challenge. I like to take my time building these relationships. 

- What would you say to new collectors who want to invest in Iranian art? 

LG: I would encourage them to buy works by young artists.  My mission when I started a gallery was to promote young and new talent.  I have so much respect for the masters of Iranian art but I always take pleasure in being able to discover and promote new talent and see them find their way into the scene and this still is what keeps me going in this profession.

NN: My advice is to look for unique artists, timeless pieces, and always check the resume.

OT: Well, I would say, if you have never been here, do come to Iran and feel the artistic atmosphere and visit the galleries and look for what you like.  It all depends on the reasons why you like to invest in Iranian art.  If you like to put your money into something safe, I would say go for artists of the Iranian modern movement of the 70’s.  Alternatively, I would recommend contemporary art to collectors who enjoy seeking out new artists taking the opportunity to develop a collection that may increase in value over time.

- What aspects can improve the quality of the ways galleries function inside Iran?

LG:  The government gives permission to anyone who has got a space to open a gallery but out of all these galleries there are only about 10 -12 galleries that function well.  I believe being cultured and having a professional attitude in this field is a must.  You have to be able to participate in cultural debates; educate and be beneficial to the culture of this country.  I like to see more people who are actually trained for this field to get involved and to bring about a professional attitude to what an art gallery should really do.

NN: We need more good art critics, more good galleries and more buyers.

OT: There have been a lot of licenses issued for galleries but you really only hear from around 20 of them.  There is still a long way to go. I think in about 10 years we reach a point where we can run galleries in a truly professional way here.  I think one important step would be for galleries to clarify which artists they are representing on contract based system and to really build a genuinely professional attitude in their relationship with the artists and with the public.  I would say currently there are only about 5 galleries in Tehran that really work professionally. 

- Where is the best collection of Iranian Modern and Contemporary Iranian art kept?

LG: One would think it has got be the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art but the museum has not bought additional works for its collection in years! The problem again is that people who manage the museums are not professionals in the field of culture and arts so they waste the museum’s budget and they don’t really
benefit the museum.  I think you will find the best of Iranian art scattered around inside people’s homes.

NN: At Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, although it’s mostly modern art and the collection is mainly just of paintings. You can hardly call it a contemporary collection.

OT: For Contemporary art we don’t have a well kept and archived collection yet.  For modern Iranian art, I think Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art is a notable location.  Also there are collectors who have very good collections of modern art but not specifically contemporary. I don’t know of anyone or anywhere that has a collection of the best of both combined.  There is a collector based in the Emirates that has a private collection of around 2000 pieces of both modern and contemporary art but it is not a well organized and archived collection and many of the artists in it are unknown.

- Looking ahead 80 years from now, how do you think Iranian art of 21st century be regarded as?

LG: It will be regarded very highly.  We have a lot of young and talented and innovative artists who have entered the art scene and have given it a very exciting twist.  This is amazing because what happens artistically now is very spontaneous. These artists have only the support of galleries and not the government (as it is supposed to be their duty to support art and culture of Iran).  In a way I am glad that they don’t provide support because they will only enforce their own taste and objectives in what they back if they did.

NN: It will be regarded as courageous and interesting.

OT: I think in the next ten years, Iranian art will enter a truly world class level and will be a serious player in the international art scene. But for this we must plan well and have real objectives.  Iranian art has got so much potential. It is eccentric and distinctive and very different to the art of the rest of the region qnd the world.  I also think that Iranian non-decorative art will flourish but I don’t know how this will all be regarded 80 years ahead!

Leila Sajjadi's blog
Via Art Review
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