Reflections on the Abby Grey Collection
By Lynn Gumpert, December 2008
How did a self-described “dyed-in-the-wool Midwesterner” residing in St. Paul, Minnesota, come to donate over two hundred works of modern Iranian art to New York University (NYU)? Indeed, this group of works—part of The Abby Weed Grey Collection of Modern Asian and Middle Eastern Art at the Grey Art Gallery—constitutes the largest public holding of Iranian modern art outside of Iran. This unusual collection was amassed by Abby Grey on numerous trips to Asia and the Middle East in the 1960s and 1970s to promote artistic exchange, and represents countries as diverse as Japan, Thailand, India, Nepal, Turkey, Israel, and, of course, Iran.(1) In 1974, Mrs. Grey established the Grey Art Gallery at NYU as a permanent home for her collection with the intention of furthering her cross-cultural approach in an international academic setting as well as complementing NYU’s Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies.
Mrs. Grey, it turns out, had begun collecting art as part of a mission of self-education. She created the Ben and Abby Grey Foundation in St. Paul in 1961 in order to sponsor and encourage artists, and to purchase their works to exhibit in the future. She later remarked that, in hindsight, she realized “how naive and uncritical I was about the whole enterprise. But had I been more worldly and ‘realistic,’ I never would have undertaken what I did.” Indeed, despite “a lack of professional expertise,” she continued, “I was able to arrange the first exhibition of original contemporary American art to be seen by Turkish and Iranian artists. Moreover, my informal contacts with these and other third-world artists laid the groundwork for precedent-setting shows in the United States.”(2)
Her vision was bold and simple: one world through art. She believed that art, as a universal language, could serve as a potent vehicle of knowledge, communication, and understanding. Born in 1902 in St. Paul, she married Benjamin Edwards Grey, a career army officer, in 1930. She started collecting in earnest in 1960, after the death of her husband four years earlier. It was at the age of 58, after travelling around the world with a group of fourteen women, that she identified her new and most unusual direction. She realized early on that what interested her was not the traditional or conventionally appealing but, rather, responses “to a world both beautiful and ugly; works that were arresting and strange, demanding that, through art, I perceive and understand reality in a deeper way.”(3) For instance, In India, “I didn’t look for miniaturists or gem setters; in Iran, I didn’t look for rugmakers. In many places, I didn’t know where to look or exactly what to look for, but whatever it was going to be, it had to express the response of a contemporary sensibility to contemporary circumstances. In every country, I asked, ‘Where are your working artists? What are they doing? How are they breaking with the past to cope with the present?’ ”(4)
Her engagement with the art and artists of Iran was especially impassioned. Mrs. Grey’s first trip to Iran in 1960 coincided with the second national biennial of modern art, which was on view at the Golestan Palace in Tehran, and which she described as “an eye-opener.” Home to the famous Peacock Throne, the palace was full of “glitter and more glitter … marble floors covered with Persian rugs, gardens of pansies, fountains jetting rainbows in the setting sun, chandeliers, mirrors inside and out. Lots of sparkle but no life.”(5) In her visits to studios—in Iran and elsewhere—she found what she was looking for: artists who were not just practicing age-old traditional arts, often geared for the tourist market, but instead eager to break away from clichés and contribute to the changing world around them. On her second trip to Iran and Turkey in 1961, she took with her a portfolio of ink drawings, prints, pastels, and other works on paper by contemporary Minnesota artists in order to allow artists to see actual works—as opposed to reproductions—by their Western counterparts. Eventually, Mrs. Grey’s efforts resulted in a number of touring exhibitions, both in the United States and abroad, some undertaken in collaboration with the United States Information Service (USIS).(6) In 1972, she realized her most ambitious project to date—a show titled “One World Through Art,” consisting of 1,001 works (the number inspired by the classic Arabian tales), held at the Minnesota State Fair Grounds. She also arranged for international exchanges, enabling a young Iranian artist, Parviz Tanavoli, to spend time in Minnesota. With the aid of Tanavoli, she established a bronze foundry at the University of Tehran where this artist, eager to revive an ancient Persian art form, taught after his return from St. Paul to Iran.
In 1970, Mrs. Grey began watching one of first attempts to broadcast university-level courses on television. Called Sunrise Semester, the series appeared on CBS. Three mornings a week, at 6:00 am, NYU professor Peter Chelkowski lectured on Persian history. On one of her trips to New York to visit her brother, who was a pastor at St. Luke’s Chapel in Greenwich Village, Mrs. Grey contacted Professor Chelkowski to discuss their shared enthusiasm for Persian culture. From that initial contact, a link was forged. With the inaugural show at the Grey Art Gallery in 1975, NYU was able to exhibit both the art it had acquired over the years and the modern Asian and Middle Eastern works received from the Grey Foundation.
Truly multicultural before her time, Abby Weed Grey actually achieved what she set out to do, not only encouraging and sponsoring contemporary artists, but ensuring that their works would be seen and studied in the future. Illustrated here, within a larger context of modern Iranian visual culture, it is clear that her collection continues to educate and inspire.
Adapted from an essay published in Picturing Iran: Art, Society and Revolution, ed. Shiva Balaghi and Lynn Gumpert (London and New York: I.B. Tauris, 2002), pp. 17–19.