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Harper’s Bazaar Arabia interview Dr Ziba Ardalan

23 January 2018

Photograph by Jake Gavin

Founding director Dr Ziba Ardalan reveals to Katrina Kufer how London’s not-for-profit Parasol unit foundation for contemporary art was built for the public

It has been 14 years of joy, pleasure, whirlwind activities, milestones and really, really hard work,” says Dr Ziba Ardalan, who opened Parasol unit foundation for contemporary art in a renovated Victorian furniture factory on the fringes of Hackney and Shoreditch in 2004. At that time, London’s art scene was still in its nascent stage as compared its fortitude today— Tate Modern was inaugurated in 2000, Frieze Art Fair followed shortly after in 2003. “When I started Parasol unit, I knew virtually no one in the London art world and had to rely wholly on my own vision and judgment,” remarks Ardalan. “London was always a major world city with many established museums and cultural institutions—but I hope I am not mistaken in saying that until 2000, the focus on contemporary art was not as strong as it is now.”

Making its mark early as the first not-profit contemporary art foundation in London set up by a private individual, Parasol unit has grown to be internationally recognised for its forward-thinking, challenging—and free—exhibitions. Ardalan’s keen eye has recognised and cemented the careers of local, if not international, artists such as Jannis Kounellis, to whom she gave a major solo show in 2012. “But I cannot thank London enough, all the amazing support it has given Parasol unit over the years,” says Ardalan. “Since 2000, London has benefited from a glorious period in contemporary art, the pace of which is unparalleled. Even New York after World War II and Paris at the beginning of the 20th century may have needed more time to become the art centres of their time.”

Engaging with the public through a rigorous programme, Parasol unit stands apart by adopting two less common models: the Kunsthalle, and one that straddles private funding and public support. “When I was young and studying science in Switzerland, I used to visit such institutions to keep up with developments in art and was totally in awe of the contribution Kunsthalles were making to the understanding of the art of our time and doing so in a most economical way,” explains Ardalan.

Noting that this format was run by minimal staff without sacrificing ambitious, museum-calibre exhibitions, Ardalan admits it is currently challenging to to run institutions as economically, but she still loves the efficiency of the process and strives to similarly deliver content over form. “The name ‘Parasol unit foundation for contemporary art’ says it all,” she clarifies. “I was never interested in calling it the ‘Ziba Ardalan Centre for Contemporary Art’. The important driving principle was what would happen in this institution, and nothing to do with self-satisfaction.”

The space operates curatorially, without a private collection as its foundation. Rather, it is at the service of British and international artists—focusing on mid-career surveys (David Claerbout or Darren Almond), emerging artists, such as Tschabalala Self, and fresh takes on established artists, including Siah Armajani or Robert Therrien. Ardalan is always on the lookout, using a combination of knowledge and instinct, being vigilant to not succumb to superficiality, trends, showing unfelt or unrelatable artwork (Ardalan has traveled to Japan and Mull to preview artists prior to exhibiting them), or even adhering to a pre-determined set of rules or platforms. She believes smaller institutions allow for this. The increased independence and the freedom to react to and quickly implement exhibition line ups highlights that size doesn’t affect the scale of cultural contributions to the local neighbourhood and community.

But such a format is not without its practical challenges. Following a one-time donation by the founder that functions as a reserve, Parasol unit has since continuously raised funds through its Gift Aid scheme, grants from charitable organisations, private donations and merchandise sales to sustain 40 percent of its costs. “I confess that my mind has, at times, been about to blow,” indicates Ardalan.

“The stress levels have been immense. When one undertakes such a monumental venture, one has to work at 500 per cent capacity for at least six to seven years and at the outset one can barely comprehend the level of hardship and determination that is required in taking on such a challenge.” But the payoff was well worth it: “I feel hugely privileged to have seen the world through the eyes of more than 100 artists and to have been challenged and enlightened by each and every one of them and their ideas.”

The programme includes events such as panel discussions, talks, poetry readings (November features Robert Montgomery), workshops for young people, its second book fair this December and even auctions—Ardalan fondly recalls the auction marking Parasol unit’s 10th anniversary and how previously exhibiting artists donated works—alongside its rotating exhibitions. Much has been the direct result of “guts, courage and taking chances whenever possible,” she quips. Marking Parasol unit’s 50th exhibition is the first London showing of  Martin Puryear, a giant of American contemporary art who Ardalan feels has been widely overlooked—playing perfectly into the philosophy of pushing a remit that is focused on the public instead of commercial concerns that tend to dominate the two other facets of the art world: galleries and collectors.

“I could talk about my fears back in 2005 when I organised a solo exhibition of works by the Belgian painter Michaël Borremans in our half-finished building,” she recalls. “That was his first outing away from home and resulted in a steep rise in the recognition of his work by the international art world.” But as a ‘no-pain-no-gain’ approach goes, on the flipside, Ardalan recounts “how exhilarating it was to take the risk and commission the first art work in 2006—a marvelous film entitled No Snow on the Broken Bridge by revered Chinese artist, Yang Fudong, a really young artist at a time when the art world was enamoured with a totally different kind of contemporary Chinese art and painting.”

A mix of the right time, the right mind and the right model has seen Parasol unit reach success. “My coming to London and opening Parasol unit foundation for contemporary art had absolutely nothing to do with trends of reputable commercial galleries abroad seeing the need to open spaces in London, or that both the younger generation and many well-to-do foreigners who live in London have been becoming increasingly avid collectors,” clarifies Ardalan. “I started the foundation purely out of my own idealism and love for art and the opportunity to do so arose.” Despite having initially received a PhD in Physical Chemistry before acquiring a degree in art history from Columbia University, the multi-faceted background has only benefited Ardalan’s trajectory, sharing previously that chemistry showed her that “everything is interchangeable, everything is open, permutable, possible.”

Shifting gears, by 1987 she became the first director of the Swiss Institute in New York City and was exposed there to the privilege and flexibility of running a small institution, ultimately sparking the desire to run her own. “The move to London in 2000 was the result of a family decision, yet looking back, I have to admit that the past 17 years have been a sort of golden age in the development of contemporary art in London and I have been truly fortunate to have been in the midst of it.”

But Ardalan, visible throughout her endeavours and ethos, always has both feet on the ground. “Sometimes I think we are all working too hard and indeed forget to communicate enough with one another and to collaborate more often,” says Ardalan. “All the art institutions have set such a high bar in their exhibition quality and the frequency of changing exhibitions that a lack of time can limit our opportunities for the privilege of enjoying the exchange of ideas and for arranging more collaborations.”

However, this sentiment seems more the undying motivation of a woman behind a foundation dedicated to offering the public the very best, maintaining spontaneity and avoiding anything contrived, rather than an objective take on institutional shortcomings. “In the recent past, I have several times been invited to set up ‘Parasol units’ in other cities, but I think the experience I have had in London is unique and hard to duplicate,” says Ardalan. “I have simply loved my time in London.”