Iran Sentences Gallerists to Prison, Lashes—and the 9 Other Biggest News Stories This Week
01 An Iranian-American gallery owner and his wife were handed stiff sentences by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Court.
(via the Wall Street Journal)
The court convicted Karan Vafadari and Afarin Nayssari, a wealthy couple known for their lavish parties in the Iranian capital Tehran, of espionage and other charges. Vafadari, who has consistently denied the allegations, was sentenced to 27 years in prison, 124 lashes, and a cash fine of $243,000, according to a letter he wrote from prison that was published online Tuesday by the Center for Human Rights in Iran. His wife, who holds a U.S. green card, received 16 years in prison. The court confiscated all of Vafadari’s assets, citing a rarely used provision of Iranian law that allows such seizures from dual citizens. The couple, who owned the Aun Gallery, were originally arrested in July 2016 for violating Islamic laws that forbid serving alcohol and prohibit men and women from mixing. But because the couple are adherents of Zoroastrianism, an ancient pre-Islamic religion, they were exempt from the Islamic rules. Tehran prosecutors subsequently added the espionage charges. Vafadari’s son, who lives in Atlanta, called the Iranian justice system “opaque” and said his father and stepmother would appeal. A U.S. official called for the couple’s release. Iranian officials said Washington was not engaging in negotiations over a potential prisoner swap.
02 A Turkish air strike has caused severe damage to a Syrian temple that dates back to the Iron Age.
(via The Art Newspaper)
The ancient temple of Ain Dara in northwest Syria has suffered major damages following an attack by Turkish air forces that deliberately targeted the structure. The temple was discovered in 1955 and excavated thereafter, reported The Art Newspaper, with the dig unearthing the base of the structure that had “survived in relatively good condition.” But last week’s bombing caused major destruction, particularly to the temple’s massive basalt sculptures, which remained intact for over 3,000 years. The Turkish military targeted Ain Dara as part of a campaign against Kurdish separatists, despite the structure having no discernible military significance, a potential violation of protections for cultural property during armed conflict under the Hague Convention. Despite the damage, it may be possible to partially reconstruct the site, thanks to well-recorded documentation, according to The Art Newspaper.
03 Queens Museum director Laura Raicovich, who charted the museum on an increasingly political course, has stepped down after three years.
(via the New York Times)
Raicovich, an outspoken liberal who partially shuttered the Queens Museum in protest of U.S. President Donald Trump’s inauguration, cited divergence between her vision for the institution and the direction favored by the board as the reason for stepping down. Raicovich has in the past year taken to social media to critique the president’s policies, especially those on immigration, highlighting fear within the museum’s nearby immigrant community, a key constituency of the institution. Board members reportedly balked at Raicovich’s recent plan to turn the museum into “sanctuary space” that would bring immigrants and social services together. “There are so many big things that art and culture have to contend with that are so wrong in the world,” Raicovich told the Times. “That’s where my focus and energy needs to be, and at the end of the day, I just felt that my vision and that of the board weren’t in enough alignment to get that done.” Board chairman Mark J. Coleman praised Raicovich as “fearless” and said a search for a replacement would begin immediately. Curators and staff from various art institutions subsequently penned an open letter in the Times expressing continued support for Raicovich and the political engagement she brought to the Queens Museum. “Art institutions must respond to pressing issues facing our communities—this is not simply a right but an obligation, especially for those supported by public funds,” the letter read.
04 Frieze New York is now open to dealers without a permanent space, accommodating evolving gallery models.
Most contemporary art fairs’ criteria require participants to mount a set number of shows per year, which requires a physical gallery location. But Frieze New York this year will allow case-by-case exceptions, two of whom, Nicole Klagsbrun and Tig Sigfrid, are already planning to exhibit in May’s fair on Randall’s Island, artnet News reported. The change suggests the fair, one of the art market’s biggest, is accommodating increasingly common gallery models that don’t involve maintaining a cost-intensive physical space in pricey locales. Artnet News noted that Frieze London has not dropped its physical location requirement, while Frieze Masters has never had one. Frieze New York also added a second VIP preview day, making the fair five days in total. Subsequently, Art Agency, Partners’s Charlotte Burns reported on Thursday that Frieze is eyeing the city of Los Angeles for its third annual fair, with a potential launch in January 2019; Frieze declined to confirm the plans in a statement.
05 Manchester Art Gallery has removed a Victorian-era painting of nude adolescent nymphs from display, resulting in mixed reactions.
(via the BBC)
The 1896 painting, Hylas and the Nymphs by JW Waterhouse, shows a young man leaning over a pond with several nude adolescent women gazing toward him. The museum decided to temporarily remove the painting from view due to the ongoing reckoning around sexual harassment, sparked by the #metoo movement. According to the BBC, the decision was made both by gallery staff and artist Sonia Boyce, who plans to include a video of the removal process in her upcoming exhibition at the institution. Clare Gannaway, a curator at the gallery, said the intention of removing the painting was to “encourage debate” about the representation of women in art and how modern viewers should react to it. However, many have reacted to the removal itself as being too politically correct, with some even viewing it as censorship, a charge the gallery has denied. As art historian Liz Prettejohn, who once curated a show on Waterhouse, told the BBC, “Taking it off display is killing any kind of debate that you might be able to have.” The decision diverges from one made by the Met late last year, when it refused the demands of an online petition to take down a painting by Balthus that depicted a young girl in a sexualized pose.
06 The Louvre is exhibiting 31 Nazi-looted artworks in the hope of finding their rightful owners.
(via the Telegraph)
The Paris museum decided to put a selection of the 296 Nazi-looted pieces stored at the institution—including pieces by Eugène Delacroix and Théodore Rousseau—on permanent view so that “heirs may see these works, declare that they belong to them, and officially ask for their return,” Sébastien Allard, head of the Louvre’s paintings department, told the Telegraph. Those wishing to claim a work must provide proof it belonged to a relative, and the verification of a claim can take years, said Allard. The Nazis looted an estimated 100,000 artworks during their occupation of France, many from Jewish families, and over 2,000 still remain unclaimed today. As more time has elapsed, the pace of restitution has slowed: Only around 50 pieces have been returned to their rightful heirs since 1951.
07 The Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office asked the state’s Appeals Court to extend an injunction barring the Berkshire Museum from descassioning 40 artworks amid speculation of a resolution.
(via the Berkshire Eagle)
The ongoing legal battle over the deaccessioning of 40 works in the Berkshire Museum’s collection might be heading towards resolution, but some involved in the case urged that it too early to say for certain. In a motion filed on Monday, the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office asked for an injunction barring the museum’s sales to be extended to February 5th. In a Monday statement, a spokeswoman for the Attorney General said they are “hopeful that a brief extension will allow us to fully analyze the information we have received in our investigation, in the hope of finding a way forward to secure the future of the Museum and ensure it is able to thrive in the years to come.” The museum also issued a similarly hopeful statement this past weekend, saying it “is eager to resolve these issues to secure [its] long term future.” The proposed sale, which would have included paintings by Norman Rockwell, among other well-known artists, drew intense criticism across the art world and beyond when it was announced last July, resulting in several lawsuits, including one from Rockwell’s heirs. Despite the newfound optimism, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs in one lawsuit kept a realistic stance on this week’s statements and warned against reading too much into them, reported the Berkshire Eagle.
08 A U.S. Treasury Department list of prominent Russians linked to the Kremlin includes several art world figures.
The Treasury drew up a list of oligarchs and politicians connected with Russian President Vladimir Putin as part of its obligations under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, passed by Congress last year. The list, which was released late Monday night, includes Dmitry Rybolovlev, the Russian billionaire who is embroiled in a long-running fraud suit against a former advisor and who consigned Leonardo da Vinci’s record-breaking Salvator Mundi (c. 1490s) to Christie’s. Other art-world figures on the list include Alexei Ananyev, founder of the Institute of Russian Realist Art, and Boris Mints, who founded the Museum of Russian Impressionism. None of the 114 Russian politicians and 96 oligarchs named by the document will face any immediate legal repercussions. According to the Washington Post, the list appears to be primarily sourced from a Forbes ranking of wealthy Russians and officials named on the Kremlin’s public website (the Treasury list even replicated a mistake from the Forbes ranking). “One does not have to be very smart to make this list,” Mikhail Fedotov, head of the Kremlin Human Rights Council, told reporters. President Putin lambasted the list but said Russia would not retaliate.
09 A Manhattan district court has ruled that Fred Dorfman, the art dealer who sold several stolen works by Jasper Johns, is eligible to face criminal charges.
(via The Art Newspaper)
Dorfman, who runs a Chelsea gallery called Dorfman+, is alleged to have been involved in an illegal ploy with James Meyer, a former assistant to Johns. Meyer was sentenced to 18 months in prison in 2015 for stealing dozens of works that the American Pop artist had discarded over a 20-plus-year period and gave them to Dorfman to sell. Dorfman never faced criminal charges, only a civil suit from a Canadian gallery, Equinox Gallery, to whom he sold a stolen Johns painting in 2008. As a result of the January 25th ruling by the Court for the Southern District of New York, Equinox can now file a racketeering claim against the dealer and sue Dorfman for up to $2.4 million in damages plus legal fees. The ruling further suggests that it was Dorfman’s idea to sell the stolen works, not Meyer’s, and to pass them off as gifts given by Johns himself. The dealer, however, denies any wrongdoing. “It is a very triable case since Dorfman was not part of a fraud,” his lawyer told The Art Newspaper.
10 Christo will unveil a floating “mastaba” in Hyde Park’s Serpentine lake this summer.
Christo said he has long been intrigued by the mastaba, a structure originating in the Middle East that was often built atop tombs. His version for London’s Hyde Park will float in the Serpentine lake, in an “incredible vegetation and open area,” the artist told the Times. The sculpture will debut alongside an exhibition of the artist’s work at the Serpentine Galleries. It will be built out of 7,506 oil barrels, and will be red, white, and blue, the colors of the United Kingdom’s flag, as well as purple, a color Christo called “very royal.” He is making a similar structure in Abu Dhabi that will be 50 times larger and potentially the largest art project in the world. The Hyde Park project will be funded through the sale of his artwork. Meanwhile, the Serpentine Galleriesannounced on Wednesday that it will be opening a Liu Jiakun-designed space in Beijing this upcoming May.
Cover Image: Courtesy of the Center for Human Rights in Iran.