TEHRAN — The old brewery was a cockroach-infested ruin, a makeshift shelter for drug addicts in Tehran’s bustling downtown. Most people walked straight past it, a festering eyesore in a city dominated by high-rises and building cranes.

But when Hamidreza Pejman, a sweatpants-wearing art lover with a mission to bring Iranian art to a global level, stumbled across the building he saw something else: a space to exhibit international art and build bridges between Iranian and foreign artists. “A place where art can be art,” he said, “no matter the costs.”

Mr. Pejman, 36, who once scrubbed toilets in London but got rich in construction in Iran, took out his checkbook and bought the brewery last year.

In the two years that his nonprofit Pejman Foundation has been active, he has not only bought loads of Iranian art, but also supported dozens of Iranian and foreign artists.

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In fact, he says his love of art has become so pricey that he has been forced to cut back on other things. “I had to move in with my parents three months ago to save costs. I’m selling my Porsche,” he said, adding: “My goal is not to make any money from art. My goal is to free our art scene from the iron grip of money and get as many people to interact with art as possible.”

Photo
Iranians viewing an exhibition at the Argo Factory, a former Tehran brewery converted into a space to exhibit fine art by Iranian and foreign artists. Credit Arash Khamooshi for The New York Times

Instead of tearing the brewery down, the norm in Tehran with buildings more than 30 years old, he underwrote a restoration that preserved its industrial character. He called it the Argo Factory, not for the Hollywood movie on the Iranian hostage crisis but for the beer once produced there.

“For too long we have erased our history in Iran,” he said, standing in the building’s cavernous boiler room, now part of the exhibition space. “We shouldn’t tear down our buildings.”

When he first entered the building, it was filled with bottles, labels and receipts, proof that before the Islamic revolution alcohol consumption was common in Iran. “I’ve kept everything, such things are also a part of who we are.”

The Argo Factory, which opened in February, was an instant success. There is no entrance fee, and the works are not for sale. Art students flock there from across Iran, along with tourists and a variety of other Iranians. The first exhibition featured a French-Algerian artist, Neil Beloufa, who produces films and installations. Mr. Pejman invited the artist and his crew to Tehran, and they in turn interacted with Iranian artists to create the exhibition.

The work will go on display in Paris in 2018. “But here in Iran people will already have seen it,” Mr. Pejman said. “Instead of the artists being hijacked by the art mafia, I want to give young artists a chance to grow and interact with artists from other countries.”

Iran’s censors, who are much less active than in the past, have so far ignored the Argo Factory. “We are much more free in Iran’s art scene compared to the past and finding the courage to do much more,” Mr. Pejman said.

Photo
In an effort to fight commercialism, the Argo Factory charges no entrance fee and prohibits the sale of the works on exhibit. Credit Arash Khamooshi for The New York Times

In fact, Iran’s art scene has long been vibrant, with artists and galleries providing space for social criticism in a country where political discussion is largely muted. There are nearly 100 galleries in Tehran alone, with dozens of exhibition openings every week. The capital is also home to a huge contemporary art museum, dating from before the 1979 Islamic revolution.

But Iran’s isolation, which is in some ways conducive to fine art, also distorted the art market. Under Western sanctions imposed over Iran’s nuclear program, Iranian investors were prevented from sending cash abroad. They began to speculate in art, often as a way to launder illicit cash obtained in sanctions-evading schemes.

At flashy Tehran art auctions, works by local artists were suddenly selling for previously unheard-of sums, often equivalent to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Many artists, chasing the money, started catering to the wishes of their galleries and buyers, producing salable, decorative works.

“It had become a vicious circle,” said Mr. Pejman, who acknowledges having been one of those speculators. “Collecting art became like collecting cars for rich people. What would you do if you were a young artist? You start catering to them.”

Perhaps Mr. Pejman’s affinity for young struggling artists arose because he struggled himself at an early age. In many ways, he was lucky to turn 17 in 1997, the year that a reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, came to power.

In a period is now described by many as a political spring, Mr. Pejman was accepted at Soureh Art University. Professors barred from teaching elsewhere for political reasons would combine subjects like sociology and philosophy with the art classes. “The seeds of my love for art were sown there,” he said.

Photo
Iran’s censors have so far ignored the Argo Factory and its sometimes provocative pieces, like this one of a Middle Eastern folk hero riding backwards on a donkey. Credit Arash Khamooshi for The New York Times

In 2006 he moved to London to study fashion design and found himself all alone, without friends and largely unable to speak the language. To make ends meet he took any work he could, which mostly meant menial jobs like cleaning toilets and washing dishes. “Whenever I had nothing to do, I would go to the Tate Modern or visit other museums,” he said. “I was so alone. But I did see some of the best art in the world.”

Back in Iran, over a year later, his uncle who was moving to Canada asked him to safeguard his ailing construction company. Mr. Pejman, only 26 at the time, found a Chinese client and struck it rich.

Like many Iranians who find themselves awash in money in Iran’s casino economy, Mr. Pejman says he immediately bought a fancy car. But that did not give him the satisfaction he expected. “I didn’t feel good at all driving it,” he said. “That was when I found out that I don’t care for luxury or brands. I got into art, which had always attracted me.”

On a sunny afternoon in the courtyard of the brewery, young men and women sipping macchiatos and discussing the exhibition sat next to a colorful fiberglass statue of a legendary cleric riding backward on a donkey. The work was inspired by the story of Mollah Nasreddin, a folk hero across the Middle East who is often the butt of jokes. The statue was mounted on a spring like a child’s playground toy, and some of them climbed aboard.

Mr. Pejman, talking and explaining the meaning of the work to whoever wanted to listen, was in his element. Argo, he told his visitors, will grow to become a center of contemporary art in Iran, and will help Iranian artists to grow and become on par with artists abroad.

“I am a straightforward person. I want to build something that lasts,” Mr. Pejman said. “If I could choose, I would rather be Mozart in death than Warren Buffett while living.”

Continue reading the main story

TEHRAN — The old brewery was a cockroach-infested ruin, a makeshift shelter for drug addicts in Tehran’s bustling downtown. Most people walked straight past it, a festering eyesore in a city dominated by high-rises and building cranes.

But when Hamidreza Pejman, a sweatpants-wearing art lover with a mission to bring Iranian art to a global level, stumbled across the building he saw something else: a space to exhibit international art and build bridges between Iranian and foreign artists. “A place where art can be art,” he said, “no matter the costs.”

Mr. Pejman, 36, who once scrubbed toilets in London but got rich in construction in Iran, took out his checkbook and bought the brewery last year.

In the two years that his nonprofit Pejman Foundation has been active, he has not only bought loads of Iranian art, but also supported dozens of Iranian and foreign artists.

In fact, he says his love of art has become so pricey that he has been forced to cut back on other things. “I had to move in with my parents three months ago to save costs. I’m selling my Porsche,” he said, adding: “My goal is not to make any money from art. My goal is to free our art scene from the iron grip of money and get as many people to interact with art as possible.”

Instead of tearing the brewery down, the norm in Tehran with buildings more than 30 years old, he underwrote a restoration that preserved its industrial character. He called it the Argo Factory, not for the Hollywood movie on the Iranian hostage crisis but for the beer once produced there.

“For too long we have erased our history in Iran,” he said, standing in the building’s cavernous boiler room, now part of the exhibition space. “We shouldn’t tear down our buildings.”

When he first entered the building, it was filled with bottles, labels and receipts, proof that before the Islamic revolution alcohol consumption was common in Iran. “I’ve kept everything, such things are also a part of who we are.”

The Argo Factory, which opened in February, was an instant success. There is no entrance fee, and the works are not for sale. Art students flock there from across Iran, along with tourists and a variety of other Iranians. The first exhibition featured a French-Algerian artist, Neil Beloufa, who produces films and installations. Mr. Pejman invited the artist and his crew to Tehran, and they in turn interacted with Iranian artists to create the exhibition.

The work will go on display in Paris in 2018. “But here in Iran people will already have seen it,” Mr. Pejman said. “Instead of the artists being hijacked by the art mafia, I want to give young artists a chance to grow and interact with artists from other countries.”

Iran’s censors, who are much less active than in the past, have so far ignored the Argo Factory. “We are much more free in Iran’s art scene compared to the past and finding the courage to do much more,” Mr. Pejman said.

In fact, Iran’s art scene has long been vibrant, with artists and galleries providing space for social criticism in a country where political discussion is largely muted. There are nearly 100 galleries in Tehran alone, with dozens of exhibition openings every week. The capital is also home to a huge contemporary art museum, dating from before the 1979 Islamic revolution.

But Iran’s isolation, which is in some ways conducive to fine art, also distorted the art market. Under Western sanctions imposed over Iran’s nuclear program, Iranian investors were prevented from sending cash abroad. They began to speculate in art, often as a way to launder illicit cash obtained in sanctions-evading schemes.

At flashy Tehran art auctions, works by local artists were suddenly selling for previously unheard-of sums, often equivalent to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Many artists, chasing the money, started catering to the wishes of their galleries and buyers, producing salable, decorative works.

“It had become a vicious circle,” said Mr. Pejman, who acknowledges having been one of those speculators. “Collecting art became like collecting cars for rich people. What would you do if you were a young artist? You start catering to them.”

Perhaps Mr. Pejman’s affinity for young struggling artists arose because he struggled himself at an early age. In many ways, he was lucky to turn 17 in 1997, the year that a reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, came to power.

In a period is now described by many as a political spring, Mr. Pejman was accepted at Soureh Art University. Professors barred from teaching elsewhere for political reasons would combine subjects like sociology and philosophy with the art classes. “The seeds of my love for art were sown there,” he said.

In 2006 he moved to London to study fashion design and found himself all alone, without friends and largely unable to speak the language. To make ends meet he took any work he could, which mostly meant menial jobs like cleaning toilets and washing dishes. “Whenever I had nothing to do, I would go to the Tate Modern or visit other museums,” he said. “I was so alone. But I did see some of the best art in the world.”

Back in Iran, over a year later, his uncle who was moving to Canada asked him to safeguard his ailing construction company. Mr. Pejman, only 26 at the time, found a Chinese client and struck it rich.

Like many Iranians who find themselves awash in money in Iran’s casino economy, Mr. Pejman says he immediately bought a fancy car. But that did not give him the satisfaction he expected. “I didn’t feel good at all driving it,” he said. “That was when I found out that I don’t care for luxury or brands. I got into art, which had always attracted me.”

On a sunny afternoon in the courtyard of the brewery, young men and women sipping macchiatos and discussing the exhibition sat next to a colorful fiberglass statue of a legendary cleric riding backward on a donkey. The work was inspired by the story of Mollah Nasreddin, a folk hero across the Middle East who is often the butt of jokes. The statue was mounted on a spring like a child’s playground toy, and some of them climbed aboard.

Mr. Pejman, talking and explaining the meaning of the work to whoever wanted to listen, was in his element. Argo, he told his visitors, will grow to become a center of contemporary art in Iran, and will help Iranian artists to grow and become on par with artists abroad.

“I am a straightforward person. I want to build something that lasts,” Mr. Pejman said. “If I could choose, I would rather be Mozart in death than Warren Buffett while living.”

Nytimes

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