For years Hassan Meshkinfam has dedicated his life to preserving precious artworks in his home town of Shiraz, Iran, where he runs The Meshkinfam Museum of Art, the country’s first and only private art museum.
Taking over the work of his father before him, who started a collection of art treasures, he now has on display, alongside some contemporary art, paintings, photographs, sculpture and calligraphy by Iranian artists from over the past 200 years.
Hassan, himself an artist and a photographer, is currently in Durham, on his first ever visit to the UK, to exhibit some of his own work and give a talk on his beloved museum which is now under threat of closure, the years of self-funding his work without outside support finally catching up with him.
Joined by his 30-year-old son Sepehr, who is doing a phD at Durham University whose Grey College is hosting the exhibition, he will be giving his free talk in the senior common room tomorrow night.
The invitation to come to Durham is, explains Sepehr, an opportunity welcomed by his father.
“It’s been a long, long journey for us,” he says. “There isn’t a British Embassy in Iran and my dad had to go to Sweden and apply for a UK visa from there. He was about a month waiting for it.”
Finally here, this also marks the first time in three years that he has seen Sepehr, who left the country to escape military service and found a new life in the North East, where he is studying for a phD in computer science and also an art lover who is interested in the French impressionists, has given talks on Degas.
The men are keen to share Iran’s culture, which 59-year-old Hassan is doing his best to preserve at the visual art museum founded in 2001 in Shiraz, a city regarded as Iran’s cultural capital.
It costs the artist £100 a week to run and because the average wage is £200 a month, he charges the equivalent of only 20p entry to encourage visitors.
But, in an online video which shows a beautiful museum against a backdrop of stained glass windows, sunlight and a garden of flowers, he says: “The important point I want to stress is that the establishing and managing of a cultural centre like a museum by personal capital without any support is an impossible task.”
The blunt fact of the matter is that in a country whose citizens and authorities have plenty other concerns, art and the worry about losing heritage don’t really factor in what’s considered important in most people’s daily lives.
The Durham exhibition, called The Poetry Inspired Years, features some illustrations by Hassan, who produces a range of art and also teaches, which have been inspired by the late Iranian poet Nima Yushij, said to have been the father of Persian modern poetry.
All will be for sale, with money raised being ploughed back into the museum.
“Something’s better than nothing!” says Sepehr but only time will tell whether his father can continue with the museum.
“He can’t keep it open any more because of the expense and he doesn’t receive any financial support from any organisation and the government.
“It’s really is sad for us, for him, to shut the museum but it’s really likely. The money has been coming from his own pocket but he can’t support it himself, paying the bills.”
He adds: “He’s devoted his whole life to it.
“He knows a lot about the Persian culture. I can’t put it into words but it’s his passion.
“He wanted to do something for our city and he came up with the idea of opening a museum.
“But unfortunately sometimes he had obstacles instead of people helping.
“It’s located in a very ancient part of the city. Normally people who can afford it pay a visit but there are not many visitors per day.
“The collection is very old; there’s calligraphy, paintings and sculpture, visual arts.”
He and his father, who is eager to visit art galleries and museums over here, were also interested to hear of an exhibition about Constable and Turner, particular favourites, coming to Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle next month.
They would like their exhibition to be shown in other places if possible.
“My dad is a great artist and does lots of different kinds of art,” says Sepehr, adding: “We have nothing to do but keep our hope alive and will use every single opportunity we get. We’ll give it a try and see what happens.
“That’s why we’re here; it’s really, really important for us.”
The exhibition at Durham came about thanks to Henry Dyson, keeper of fine art at Durham University, who describes Hassan as being a “wonderful artist”.
He said: “The Meshkinfam Museum of Visual Arts is a unique and monumental effort by him reflecting his dedication to the art and cultural identity of his homeland.
“Sadly the museum will close unless finances are raised and all of the paintings at the Durham exhibition are for sale for this very worthwhile cause.”
The Poetry Inspired Years will run in the Grey College senior common room until March 2 (open weekends and by appointment mid-week) until March 2. Hassan’s free talk will take place there tomorrow night at 7.30pm.