Leila Heller: La Grande Dame of Middle Eastern Art in conversation with Hania Afifi.
When the clock turned 7:00pm, a second window appeared on my screen and I saw the familiar perfectly coiffed blond bob of Leila Heller, swiftly followed by an extreme close-up of glossy lips. Clearly, like myself, Heller was still grappling with the new norms of social distancing and online meetings.
“Hellooo,” I exclaimed, failing to contain my excitement for the opportunity of interviewing a Middle Eastern art market legend. She responded with a beaming smile and we quickly settled into our roles of storyteller and listener.
Heller grew up in Iran during the reign of Shah Ali Reza Pahlavi and moved to the United States of America in the mid-70s to pursue her undergraduate studies. Initially, she intended to complete a degree in Economics at Brown University to follow through her father’s footsteps into the world of finance and business.
“I had no intention of studying art at university. I was very much into economics. I wanted to go back and become an immensely powerful woman … to be on the same level as men running businesses in Iran.” There was nothing unusual about women joining the workforce in Iran in the 1970s. However, it was unusual for women to compete in business and trade with their male counterparts. Yet, this did not deter Heller from pursuing this course of studies and interned every summer break at her father’s company until the first year of college. “I really felt I was a good student, but by the time I got to Brown, I realised I am really not that great”, she explains, frankly. Her sudden exposure to modern mathematics and computers; an alien object she had never encountered in Iran, left her feeling bewildered and not on par with her fellow students. Fortunately, she had also enrolled in courses outside her major one of which was a study in art history’s Impressionism period. And so, the formation of Leila Heller the gallerist had begun.
Unlike the economic courses, the art classes proved to be a joyful ride for Heller. She bolstered her wide art exposure during early life with academic understanding of historical contexts and artistic genres. Her parents may have provided her with enticing visual experiences during museum visits across Europe, but it was Brown that shaped her artistic outlook. Inevitably, she switched majors and left Brown with a BA in Art History and French Literature. Heller was determined to apply her newly gained art knowledge to further the work of the recently inaugurated Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art in 1977. She joined Sotheby’s Institute of Art in London to acquire the necessary museum management and curation skills. Her uncompromising work ethos and strive for perfectionism is best exemplified when she spent two hours digging through Sotheby’s outdoor garbage cart at St. George’s Street in search for a small piece of twine.
“One day during lunch hour, I was at my desk and one of the gentlemen who worked in the front desk brought me a piece of plastic with twigs in it. I asked him what am I supposed to do with this? And he said this is supposed to be a Christo, But Christo’s are wrapped!” she recalls vivaciously.
It turned out the front desk had unwittingly unravelled Christo’s artwork and threw away parts of its assemblage which Heller rushed to salvage from the refuse pile of the auction house. Although she re-wrapped the piece as instructed by her superiors, she continued to question its authorship until she met Christo many years later in New York. He put her fears to rest when he re-asserted his authorship of the artwork, casting her as his inadvertent assistant.
Her zeal for perfectionism led her to a second museum studies program at George Washington University in the US. Being only one of a handful of institutions that offered a post-graduate degree in museum and curatorial studies at the time, Heller was boosting her chances of securing a notable position at Tehran’s Museum of Contemporary Art. She opted to train at the Hirschhorn Museum during her final year where she worked with renown curator Miranda McClintic on the 1st ever retrospective exhibition for David Smith. “I learnt a lot from Miranda. She was fascinating. And I learnt a lot from Mr. Hirschhorn himself because when he would visit with his wife, I was put in charge of taking care of them. He would show me a lot of the works he bought, where he bought them, why he bought them and why he collected so many French sculptures”, she fondly reminisces of that time.
Inevitably, all good things come to an end. However, the end of Heller’s studies was nothing like she had planned. Her final year at Washington coincided with the Iranian revolution of 1979 when the Shah of Iran was overthrown, and his government replaced by the Islamic Republic.
“My dreams of going back and becoming a curator in Iran never ever happened. I moved to New York; where my brother had just gotten into Columbia Business Schools, without a job, not knowing what to do. We were separated from our parents because our passports were cancelled. For 2 years we didn’t see our parents.” Overnight, Heller and her brother found themselves stranded in a foreign country with cancelled passports, invalid residence permits and limited financial resources. Once again, Heller was derailed off her chosen path by political turmoil. In 1968, the student riots in Paris led her to switch from the French Lycée in Tehran and plans to study at the Université de Grenoble to an international school so that she can pursue her studies in the US. Whilst the gravity of the situation was more intense this time, the outcome was the same. Heller had to adapt and change course quickly.
“I reconnected with Lisa whom I knew from Brown at an event. She was appointed Assistant Curator to Diane Waldman at the Guggenheim, and she offered to see what is available there”, recalls Heller. She was content with whichever job was on offer and keen to acquire new skills. She landed a position in public relations eventually working her way through the different departments at the museum until she was united with her friend and saviour Lisa Dennison, former director of the Guggenheim and current EVP and Chairman of Sotheby’s Americas, at the curatorial team. During her two years at the Guggenheim, Heller cultivated a support network who remain until today her best friends. “I fell in love with being in a museum and the pain of being away from my family and being so scared about the future, they became my family.” She refers to the likes of Michael Govan; Director of LACMA, Wendy Lawson-Johnston; great grand daughter of Solomon Guggenheim, and the late Thomas Messer; former director of the Guggenheim museum as members of her extended family.
Heller moved from the Guggenheim to an investment bank where she became the curator-in-charge of their art collection. She frequented artist studios like William Bailey and Martha Rosler to gain insights and a further understanding of artwork development. During that period, the bank had acquired the renown French art publication Connaisance des Arts of Paris in which Heller became heavily involved learning the ins and outs of publishing and marketing. When she obtained her green card and could travel again, she visited artist studios in Paris including Antonio Seguí and Fernando Botero. By that time, Heller had witnessed and experienced all facades of an art piece. From conception to resale, including exhibition, marketing, and promotion; she learnt it all and felt ready to embark on her own adventure.
“It was Studio54 days. The 80s in New York City were fascinating. All the artists were a buzz, Warhol was there, The Factory and all those young great talents,” she enthuses. I glimpse a flicker of light in her eyes when she recalls the unexpected reaction of Leo Castelli when she told him she wants to open her own gallery. “Tony Shafrazi [former art advisor to the Shah of Iran and to Karman Diba the former director of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art] took me to meet Leo Castelli to get his blessing for Tony’s Soho gallery opening. Leo was a father figure in the art community. He was so nurturing and immensely helpful to Tony, and I said well, I am thinking of opening up an art gallery. He said, my daughter … go open. Any questions you have anybody you want to meet, just come to me.”
Indeed, it appears to be that the 80s were a time in which the art communities were happy to connect, collaborate and network regardless of financial implications. There was a business side to the art world, but there was also a social element at which Heller excelled in.
“I remember one night when Shafrazi was opening his gallery, he asked me for USD 1,000. He said, “I need a $1000 in cash. This guy wants cash. Do you have a $1000 on you?””. Shafrazi offered Heller a choice between 10 drawings by Keith Haring or 5 portraits of her executed by an emerging eastern European artist in exchange for the immediate loan. “I stupidly in my vanity chose the 5 portraits of me by the Eastern European artist whom I forget his name, even Tony forgets it too. If I had lent him the money for the 10 Keith Haring drawings, I would not have had to work today.” Such is Heller, courageous and at ease when she acknowledges her shortcomings to me. That courage was finally directed towards a business venture that made her a name to be reckoned with in the art market. Arguably the inception had begun during her Parisian visits whilst working at the bank, when she met many Iranian artists living in exile. Some of them she knew since her childhood days in Iran, others, she was newly introduced to. “I felt guilty that they had left Iran and had no career in the west. All of them were lost and did not know what to do. I felt like I need to do something for my compatriots”, she explains the driving motivation to opening her first gallery.
It was certainly no easy feat. The Middle Eastern artists had not yet acquired a space on the global art scene. To sustain her gallery, she represented American, European, and South American artists who were collected by the New York crowd whilst slowly developing her Middle Eastern artists and cultivating a market for them. “I met YZ Kami in Paris and encouraged him to move to New York City. His name was Kamran Youssefzadeh, but I sort of changed his name. I told him Kami, it’s going to be hard. Youssefzadeh is a long name and everyone is going to ask you where you are from. Iranians right now are persona non-grata with the American hostage crisis”, she reveals the story behind how the prominent Iranian American artist whose has been collected and exhibited by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim and the Whitney Museum, to name a few, had acquired his trade name. Her big breakthrough came in the form of a curated exhibition by Jeffrey Deitch in the summer of 1984. Entitled Calligraffiti, the show which explored the gestural brush stroke in artmaking, combined western graffiti artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf with Middle Eastern artists; amassed by Heller, who engaged with calligraphy in some of their repertoires including Etal Adnan and Hossein Zenderoudi.
The unprecedented amalgamation of western street art and progressive eastern calligraphy showcased the subliminal influence of abstract expressionism and pop art, thus demonstrating to western audiences the shared modern vocabulary in artmaking. Deitch and Heller’s show narrowed the gap between east and west, unveiling modern and contemporary middle eastern gems that were buried under political tension.
“There were 120 artists in that show. Of the 120 artists, 60 were graffiti artists. There was also the Letterists from France. We had a nude performance by a Letterist artist. It was quite shocking as we did not know it was going to be performed in the nude. In fact, David Nahmad’s secretary had almost fainted when she saw the dancer”, recalls Heller. The attendees list of the frenzied opening read like a Who’s Who directory of the artworld. Kenny Scharf rubbed shoulders with Andy Warhol, CY Twombly with YZ Kami, Shirin Neshat with Thomas Messer. The movers and shakers of the 80s artworld were at Heller’s gallery that May evening, and continued to party along with 3000 guests until the early hours of the next morning at Area; a celebrities night club that stood on Hudson Street in Manhattan.
Her successful joint curated show was revisited 3 decades later in the fall of 2013. By then, Middle Eastern modern and contemporary artists were breaking records on the global auction scenes. In fact, they accounted for 42% of total sales at Christie’s and Sotheby’s for that year according to a published report by the financial consultant Moore Kingston Smith.
“I now had 4,000 feet of gallery space. We had El-Seed do the windows of the gallery and it was the first time El-Seed was exhibited in America”, continues Heller. Like its predecessor, the exhibition enjoyed great publicity and many reviews. Some were aghast at the hanging of Dubuffet with wall painted LA2 murals, others felt the Twombly’s paled next to ROSTARR, but all enjoyed the playfulness and enticing experience of the show and commended the expertly written exhibition catalogue. Although most galleries deal with the secondary market to stay financially afloat whilst their artists grow into sought-after names, Heller highlights the historical significance and artistic perspective of the pieces on display to lend them an educational element. This is evident in the fact that a lot of the artworks in her curated shows including Calligraffiti are not-for-sale and students from different art programs are invited on guided tours of her exhibitions. The curatorial art history background had never left her, and she still employs it to this day when searching for new artists.
“I have been looking for great Emirati artists ever since I opened my gallery in Dubai. Since the world fair, which was supposed to take place in 2020 and now is postponed to 2021, was taking place in Dubai, it was going to be the year of Emirati artists”, she laments yet again her derailed plans.
Despite this setback, she installed midst the pandemic a solo exhibition for Abdel Qader Al-Rais; one of the UAE’s pioneering painters. By showcasing the different phases of his artistic oeuvre that span from representational realism to meditative abstraction, Heller presented the painterly alternative to current understandings of the UAE’s art history as rooted in highly concept-based and anti-aesthetic installations. Like other guest curated shows, she preserved the educational and historical context.
It has become increasingly apparent throughout our conversation that this was not your classic rags to riches story in which the protagonist overcomes adversity through perseverance and sheer force. On the contrary, Heller hails from the bourgeois Iranian society where notable figures like her parents travelled the world and collected fine art. Even Andy Warhol had mistaken her for a Persian princess. Instead, this was a story that made me reflect on Epictetus words nearly 2000 years ago, when he wrote “Circumstances do not make a man [or woman] they merely reveal him to himself.” Heller faced every calamity with grace and the classic Middle Eastern traits of collaboration and extending familial support. Your mentors and your elders become your uncles and aunts. Your friends turn into your brothers and sisters. You extend to them the same love, respect, and generosity that your freely give to members of your own family. As Heller said, “I just could not get the Middle East out of me”.
It is that familial setting which she loves most about the business environment in the UAE. Speaking about the handling of the COVID 19 crisis by the local authorities, Heller gushed, “In the UAE, I feel we are doing it very much as a family, It’s really a family and that is a feeling you can never have in the west because it is a big country. Whereas here [in the UAE] everyone is so approachable, so kind and I really feel like I belong here”.
To Heller, the concepts of Home, Family and Friendship denote to the same things: love, warmth, comfort, and security. She can adapt to whichever situation she finds herself in and climb over hurdles that life throws in her path if the aforementioned needs are maintained through the circle of people around her.