Why on Earth Did Tehran’s Contemporary Art Museum Plant Vegetables in Its Yard?

In a surprising turn of events that captured headlines in the final week of May, the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art (TMoCA) in Iran found itself at the center of extensive discussions across various social media platforms. The catalyst for this sudden influx of attention was the conversion of a lawn area, adjoining the gallery exteriors, into a vegetable garden. This unconventional amalgamation of art and agriculture, within a space typically reserved for manicured lawns or outdoor sculptures, sparked an outcry that eventually led the museum to remove the garden. Some critics viewed this development as a continuation of what they perceived as subpar museum management that has persisted over the past four decades, recently manifested in insect-infested artworks and damage to existing permanent art installations

TMoCA, a prestigious institution founded by Farah Pahlavi, the former Queen of Iran, holds a distinguished reputation for housing the most valuable collection of Western Modern art outside the United States and Europe. The collection features masterpieces from eminent artists such as Pablo Picasso, Francis Bacon, Jackson Pollock, Paul Gaugin, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Andy Warhol, along with works by prominent Iranian artists. The museum’s inauguration in 1977 occurred just 15 months before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, which resulted in the royal family’s exile and the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran. 

Located on Kargar Avenue (originally Amir Abad), TMoCA shares its city block with the upscale Laleh Hotel (formerly the InterContinental), the Carpet Museum, and the spacious Farah Park (now known as Park-e Laleh or Tulip Park). The building’s nine exhibition spaces, distinguished by quarter-barrel skylights reminiscent of Iran’s traditional adobe structures, are extended toward the green perimeters of the structure. These outdoor spaces are adorned with works by renowned sculptures by artists including Alberto Giacometti, René Magritte, Henry Moore, and Arnaldo Pomodoro

The Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art in 2017 (photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Despite efforts to uphold the museum’s stature over the decades, it has suffered intermittent lapses in effective management under conservative directors. These periods have been characterized by numerous deficiencies that remained unmitigated even during the pandemic-induced expansive renovations of the museum. These developments garnered criticism from professionals in the field, including the museum’s exiled architect, Kamran Diba. The most recent manifestation of administrative inadequacies is exemplified by a controversial decision made by the administration regarding the management of the museum’s green space.

Hamid Severi, a distinguished art historian who was the head of TMoCA’s Research Center during the early 2000s — a flourishing period under the directorship of Alireza Samiazar, and crucial to then-President Mohammad Khatami’s reform movement — is one of the voices criticizing the horticultural transformation of the museum’s outdoor spaces.

The removed vegetable garden at the TMoCA, 2023 (photo courtesy Shahin Seyghali)

“I do not regard art as a sacred entity, nor do I perceive the museum as a temple … I find great joy in cultivating vegetables, derive immense pleasure from it, and hold deep respect for those engaged in this endeavor,” he told me. “However, envision observing a tragic artwork in the museum, and through the window, large orange pumpkins and vibrant red tomatoes are catching your eye! Is that not an affront to the artwork?” This, among other occurrences, has fostered a sense of diminished trust in the museum on his part.

Others have linked the growth of vegetables on the museum’s grounds to broader ideologies of the Islamic Republic pertaining to culture and the arts, particularly in light of the hardliners who have assumed control of the museum’s directorship and staff since the commencement of Ebrahim Raisi’s presidency in 2021. Following last year’s Woman, Life, Freedom uprising — a movement sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa (Zhina) Amin under the custody of the morality police due to her loosely worn scarf — there has been a notable increase in tensions between museum visitors and security personnel. On May 29, photos of unveiled women appreciating Picasso’s “Fenêtre Ouverte sur la Rue de Penthièvre” (1920) sparked a flurry of impassioned responses on social media. 

Photos of unveiled women appreciating a Picasso at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art sparked a flurry of impassioned responses on social media. (screenshot Hyperallergic)

These incidents expose the strained nexus between cultural activities and personal freedoms, particularly in the face of the recent harsh political climate. Shahin Seyghali’s remarkable 2017 sculpture “Ma” (which translates to “us” or “us, the people” in English) sparked a wave of criticism following its unexplained removal from the museum’s grounds in July 2020. Since last fall’s women-led protests, the statue has evolved into a canvas for inscribing anti-establishment slogans. But in early May, without Seyghali’s approval, unknown individuals — potentially connected to the government — painted the sculpture, originally designed to maintain its natural concrete color, with a shade of orange, concealing the spray-painted slogan “Death to the Dictator.” This alteration further highlights the dynamic and frequently contentious interplay between art, the museum’s adjacent public spaces, and the politics inherent in institutional management.

With a degree of sarcasm, conceptual artist Homayoun Sirizi told me that the transformation of the lot into a vegetable garden may be the museum’s most noteworthy accomplishment in the recent past. Others speculated that the small farm could potentially be an artistic intervention. Following the Woman, Life, Freedom uprising, the boundary between art and reality has become progressively blurred. This was exemplified when graphic designer Majid Kashani crafted a montage of traditional vegetable market banners at the museum’s entrance, mockingly converting the space. This artistic commentary was so convincingly executed that some social media observers believed it to be real.

Photomontage of TMoCA entrance by graphic designer Majid Kashani (2023) (photo courtesy the artist)

Jinoos Taghizadeh, an artist who has intimately observed the fluctuating fortunes of the museum since the Islamic revolution, told me in an interview that “the farm is a succinct metaphor for the museum’s mismanagement during the majority of its operational history.” The museum often appears to be left to its own devices, “devoid of a lead curator or a dedicated public engagement team,” Taghizadeh continued. She concluded that “had it not been for the intermittent yet impactful interventions by a cadre of discerning scholars and artists, the museum’s exhibition programs would have been bereft of certain notable highlights, such as the 2004 showcase of prominent British sculptors or the 2015 retrospective of the distinguished Iranian artist, Farideh Lashai.” 

These remarkable curatorial instances seem transitory, a sentiment resonating with a considerable number of Iranian artists; when in fact, it was visually echoed in 2002 when sculptor and performance artist, Amir Mobed, installed 12,000 plaster mushrooms in the museum’s sculpture garden. This unexpected installation, nestled in the heart of bustling Tehran, sparked curiosity and speculation among the public. Despite drawing many spectators, only a few recognized that the sudden mushroom proliferation was not a natural occurrence, but rather an art installation. While captivating, “the installation sought to underline both the transitory nature of effective management within the museum, and its conspicuous absence,” Mobed told me. This sentiment is mirrored in the recent emergence of the vegetable garden, which, according to Mobed, “does so with an ironic, even unfortunate, tangible authenticity.”

Amir Mobed’s “Mushrooms” (2002) (photo by Ebrahim Hosseini, courtesy Amir Mobed)

Is it detrimental to cultivate a farm adjacent to a museum? While the museum’s concrete foundation could effectively prevent the minimal water used for lawn irrigation from infiltrating the interior spaces, the cultivation of vegetables with deeper roots, which require more water, could pose a risk to the building’s foundation. Whether or not we perceive this in a positive light — as a source of food production or as the manifestation of the museum gardener’s creative vision —over time, the foundation may sustain damage. 

Earlier in May, a more effective and imaginative exploration of the nexus between food and the museum was brought to light by an artist. Reza Monjezi positioned a table outside the museum and engaged in the humble act of selling bread. Steeped in simplicity, the exhibition offered a poignant commentary on the intersection of everyday life and art.

Deeply perturbed by the soaring prices of food in today’s Iran, an outcome of international sanctions and the devaluation of Iran’s currency, Monjezi meticulously crafted dozens of pieces of pita bread, inscribing them with calligraphic inscriptions that read “petroleum,” “halal,” “haram,” “rental,” and “free.” All the terms were linked to idioms or expressions that reference bread as a metaphor for wider societal concerns. Monjezi was fascinated by the range of reactions he observed. Akin to an ethnographer, he studied people’s emotional responses and sentiments amidst Iran’s current economic and political turmoil. 

Regrettably, the actual vegetable garden merely underscored the museum’s management shortcomings and contributed little in terms of interpretive richness. Museum authorities swiftly dismantled the garden once it flooded social media platforms. However, with the vegetable garden now removed, a critical question remains: Will the museum persist in its pattern of substandard management by employing less conscientious staff, or will it reformulate its administrative policies?

Even if the vegetable garden could be interpreted as the museum gardener’s attempt to produce cost-effective food amidst the current hostile economic climate, it was a misguided choice. By leveraging higher expertise within Iran, one hopes the museum will circumvent the controversies surrounding its management strategies and ill-considered actions and interventions. We can only aspire for brighter days ahead. 

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