Dastan’s Basement opened in Tehran in 2012 with the objective of showing emerging and experimental Iranian art. The gallery has since broken out from the confines of the basement and developed Dastan+2, which showcases established artists, and Dastan:Outside, a pop-up programme for site-specific projects. Founder Hormoz Hematian explains how Dastan’s team has been coping with the pandemic and continuing to promote Iranian art globally.
What effect has the pandemic had on Dastan’s Basement in terms of its physical presence and how you present, curate and sell art? Have galleries in Tehran been forced to shut?
HH: The impact of the pandemic was first felt at Dastan on 21 February, after the last show of the Iranian year. Many of the artists and curators who work with the gallery had gathered that day for a brunch to celebrate together. Closures were announced the next day and the shows that were on view – the Ghassemi Brothers at Dastan+2 and Sina Ghadaksaz at Dastan’s Basement – had to shut for the remainder of the year. The United States had not yet gone into lockdown at that time and Dastan was set to take part in The Armory Show in early March with the works of Mehdi Ghadyanloo. But the US then decided to ban visitors from Iran, so I was forced to watch from afar while my colleagues and friends over there brought the exhibition to audiences in New York. Luckily, it was hugely successful for the artist and happened just in time, as the city went into lockdown early the following week.
Back in Iran, the team at Dastan – and all other galleries for that matter – started working from home after the announcement by the city and health authorities. The confusion, uncertainty and despair definitely took a toll at the beginning, but we all learned to adjust. On the positive side, given that everyone was less busy, the team managed to develop better processes and much closer relationships with our artists and collectors. It is during such trying times that the entire community realises the value of having one another. Among the initiatives was a series of short films by Alborz Kazemi, visiting the studios of artists that work with the gallery.
The team also improved the information on the gallery website, arranged private viewings(both physical and virtual) for collectors, and created a number of fully virtual exhibitionsWhat changes have you made when dealing with artists, collectors, and customers and in trying to keep your business viable and vibrant?
With physical presence so limited, we were facing problems on various fronts including artist relations, collector relations and viewer management. With artists, we focused on having more in-depth conversations, creating more content about their practice and making this information more available. Dastan has also undertaken the small-scale publishing of books and catalogs of artists and their projects, many of which will be coming out over the next six months. For collectors, we began by organising and making collections available virtually and have also started working with patron and collector Mohammed Afkhami, a close friend of the gallery, on an ambitious virtual project in cooperation with ASA North and The Open Crate that will make his outstanding collection more accessible to the public. As for visitors, physical attendance is truly something irreplaceable and the gallery has still managed to hold 15 physical exhibitions since April. Some of the shows were also made completely virtual to ensure easy access for everyone. As soon as the newly imposed lockdown conditions in Tehran improve, a new project by the collective named In Cahoot, established by BitaFayyazi, will take place as part of Dastan: Outside projects in a new space where we will hopefully plan more exhibitions soon after.
How have you changed your programming and schedule to adapt to the new n circumstances of the art world? Is a physical presence still very important for you?
The physical presence is most important. Despite their limitations, the art fairs have played a major role in bringing people together and we all miss that greatly. Dastan was very proud to have taken part in Art021 in Shanghai in 2019, and excited that the fair went ahead physically this year also. With much help from the fair organisers and Danielle Shang, the curator of the Detour section of the fair, we were able to show the works of AsalPeirovi, Mehdi Ghadyanloo and Sepand Danesh. It turned out to be one of the most successful presentations for us ever, with works by one of the artists going to a major Chinese museum and the rest to prominent collectors. The digital edition of Frieze NY, which took place in March, also went really well for both the gallery and the artist Iman Raad, who created and designed a virtual viewing room for his works. We are also participating in this year’sArtissima Unplugged and are delighted to display a work by Sam Samiee at the Galleria Civicad’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea in Turin.
How have Iranian artists been coping with the impact of the crisis? Has there been any government assistance for them?
Everyone, including artists and galleries, has been experiencing the negative impact of the pandemic on their daily lives. Coupled with the economic hardship imposed by sanctions and a devaluating rial, the people of Iran are all suffering immensely. We are not aware of any government programmes that support artists, but some of the private sector efforts have included the artist emergency aid that Fereydoun Ave started and there have been similar efforts by Azaad Art Gallery to raise funds for artists in need. Our sales team has been as flexible and active as they can in securing sales for the artists that work with us.
Do you think that the pandemic has changed the art world forever, and if so, how will this affect the gallery?
It would be naive to say that the pandemic has not changed the world. A calamity that has cost so many so much will surely have lasting effects. As far as Dastan is concerned, we’ve always striven to strengthen our relationships with artists, collectors and our audience, which is the backbone of the whole scene. Everyone is recognizing how much can still be achieved without being present physically in any particular place, which leads in turn to a reduced carbon footprint when exhibiting art around the world. But there’s another dimension very specific to Iran that is worth mentioning as well. Now that most art viewing is being done online, the barriers and restrictions that have loomed over the country for so long, including budgetary and regulatory difficulties, are at their least dominant. Viewers around the world can now look online at the programmes of great Iranian galleries and discover new artists through websites that have all been revamped and are much more sophisticated and appealing. This pandemic has taken so much away from all of us and owes us much in return. After such hardship, there is a bright future ahead for all of us and especially for Iranian art.