At New York’s Rubin Museum the spirit of the art is alive and cutting-edge. It’s both the world’s leading museum of Himalayan art and a hotspot of contemporary culture and thought. Elisabeth Coleman reports on this unique creative collision and the fascinating story behind it.
One afternoon—it was about thirty years ago now—New Yorkers Shelley and Donald Rubin were walking up Madison Avenue and passed by one of the many fine art shops that call it home when their attention was drawn to a thangka, a traditional Tibetan painting, in the window. It portrayed White Tara, the female buddha of compassion. At the time they knew nothing about Himalayan art, but it stopped them in their tracks. “Our response was immediate and intuitive,” says Donald Rubin. “When you fall in love with someone, you don’t ask for their resumé and the history of their family. It’s the same thing with art. All you need to do is to feel it, to connect with it.”
They bought the thangka and hung it in their bedroom. Gradually, they say, it started communicating with them. Inspired by this budding love affair, the Rubins began to learn about Himalayan art and collect it. “We let the art speak to us, and we paid attention to it. We built our collection by following our hearts,” Donald Rubin says. Gelek Rinpoche, a leading teacher of Tibetan Buddhism who practices and teaches about a number of female Buddhas, including Tara, says, “I’m not surprised it was White Tara who got his attention.” Chuckling, he adds, “Tara knows what she’s doing!”
On October 2, 2004, that long love affair sparked by Tara came to fruition in a big way when the world’s premiere museum of Himalayan art—the Rubin Museum of Art, on West 17th Street in the fashionable Chelsea neighborhood of New York City—opened to the public. In a stunning example of architectural recycling, the new museum was housed in a former high-end clothing store, its beautiful steel-and-marble spiral staircase soaring upward from the lobby with galleries arranged, mandala-like, around it. The day of the opening, the street in front was packed with Himalayan musicians and dancers, politicians, high lamas, monks, and museum supporters. There was a parade of Himalayan dogs, and student artists made sidewalk art, intended, in the spirit of impermanence, to disappear with time.
“Art liberates my soul,” says Donald Rubin. “It feeds me; it is intense. The energy from it takes over my life.” The Rubins believe art should be emotional and engaging, something people should get involved with. In typical fashion, then, the Rubin Museum of Art (RMA) asked one hundred contemporary artists to design for the opening their own versions of traditional Tibetan prayer flags, called dar cho in Tibetan. These flags, which have been a part of Himalayan culture for thousands of years, are said to spread good fortune to all beings—the fluttering motion of the cloth sets auspicious forces in motion and silences harmful ones.
The flags were just one of many elements featured on that opening weekend. But in its effort to engage a wide variety of people, to make meaningful connections between Eastern and Western cultures, and in its sheer sense of fun and creativity, “Written on the Wind: The Flag Project” (which eventually appeared as a full-scale indoor exhibition in 2007-2008) exemplified the museum’s innovative approach to its art and public programs. When RMA opened its huge glass doors for the first time, strings of the colorful silk flags were pulled up from the street and fastened to the roof of the gracious, six-story building. The multicolored medley flapped softly in the warm autumn air, dispensing blessings to hundreds of cheering well-wishers.
Today, the 70,000-square-foot museum houses about 3,000 works in its permanent collection, almost double the original 1,700, most of which were donated by Shelley and Donald Rubin from their personal collection. The museum draws from all the cultures that touch the 1,800-mile arc of mountains that stretches from Afghanistan to Burma, including the Tibet Autonomous Region, Nepal, Mongolia, and Bhutan. The larger Himalayan cultural sphere, based on thousands of years of cultural exchanges, also includes Iran, India, China, Central Asia, and Southeast Asia. At the same time, the museum has developed a reputation as a hotbed of innovative, contemporary programming, attracting talent like director Martin Scorsese, actor/playwrights Sam Shepherd and Wally Shawn, and musicians Laurie Anderson, Lou Reed, and Moby.
RMA’s permanent collection includes many prized pieces, among them: “Durga,” a stunning 11” x 13” x 7 ¼” gilt copper-alloy statue, Nepalese, seventeenth century, and “Pagmodrupa Dorje Gyalpo, Tibetan Teacher,” a Tibetan thangka from the thirteenth century made of mineral pigments on cloth. In its short history, RMA has produced thirty-two highly praised exhibits, many of them startlingly ambitious, that delve into aspects of Himalayan art and culture that have rarely, if ever, been addressed in a museum setting. These include: exhibitions on celebrated flying Himalayan mystics, Sikh art and beliefs, female buddhas, and the colorful, magical Buddhist adepts known as siddhas. Currently on display is a highly rated group of artworks from Bhutan, showing through January, 2009, and next year will bring the first of eight annual exhibits, each dealing with a little-known area of Tibetan painting. An exhibition on the Jain religion, rarely heard of in the West, is under development.
Several projects launched earlier with the Rubins’ support are housed down the street from the museum and complement its work. Himalayan Art Resources, which is managed by scholar and former Buddhist monk Jeff Watt, maintains an ever-growing Web site of astonishing scope. The site, himalyanart.org, has pulled together images from almost eighty different sources, including private collections, photographic archives, published works, and nearly forty museums in North America, Europe, and Asia.
The Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center—down the hall from Himalayan Art Resources—scans, formats, and distributes scans of 12,000 texts with the goal of creating a digital library. This Web-based resource also provides all of the biographical references for the many identifiable portrait paintings and sculpture in the Himalayan Art Project database. The TBRC is directed by Gene Smith, a famed Tibetan scholar who has devoted more than four decades to collecting and reprinting Tibetan texts held in the exile community and other Tibetan-speaking communities. Smith, an éminence grise and living treasure in the world of Tibetan texts, is impressed by what the Rubins have accomplished. Tibetan Buddhism, Smith says, is “the most mystical, esoteric form of Buddhism. Shelley and Donald are not Buddhists, and their commitment to create a public institution around the art is quite amazing. That kind of magnanimity is pretty rare.”
“The Rubin Museum of Art is a wonderful contribution to New York cultural life,” says Alexandra Munroe, senior curator of Asian art at the Guggenheim Museum. “They have managed, through imaginative programming, to engage contemporary-art audiences with highly arcane topics of tantric religious art. This is an educational feat, and I admire it.”
Donald Rubin is 73, a tall and imposing man with deep, somewhat sad eyes. His first life, as a hard-nosed and savvy businessman, shows through in his second life as an art connoisseur and patron. He is a person of strong emotion, and relies on his intuition, on what he calls a “heart connection,” for guidance. He is deeply loyal to those he embraces, yet he can also be very tough.
Lisa Schubert, former director of external affairs at RMA, says that everything at RMA has grown out of Donald and Shelley Rubin’s “original vision to make the experience of the art relevant to people of all ages, religions, and backgrounds.” The Rubins see art as a powerful vehicle for understanding humanity, and for change. “By learning about other cultures,” says Donald Rubin, “we also learn about our own culture, something we know very little about, unfortunately.”
The Rubins believe art should be available to everyone, but with this kind of subject matter, some interpretation is required. The entire second floor of the museum is devoted to explaining what Himalayan art is, how it is made, and what its purpose is. Tour guides tell stories rather than just laying out the facts. Special programs have been created for underserved audiences: there are special gallery tours for the partially sighted and the hearing-impaired; Mandarin and Spanish language tours are available.
Educational programs have been designed for all age groups, including a half-dozen classes for the very young. The popular body-movement class, “Moving through Art,” integrates, say, facial expressions or hand positions from the art into movement. For three years, the Rubin has produced “Peak Experience,” the ultimate sleepover for children aged ten to twelve. Forty boys and girls are roped together to scale the world’s most extreme terrain (which in reality is the museum’s stunning spiral staircase, covered with mounds of cotton wool snow and wrapped with a light, blowy fabric). They sleep “on the mountain,” amid loud howling winds, then set off for the summit in the pre-dawn darkness.
There are also programs for teenagers and adults, but it’s the Rubin’s work with seniors, giving them free admission one day a month, that has gained special praise. In February, the City of New York selected the museum to announce its “SM(ART)S—Seniors Meet the Arts” program. “The Rubin Museum has demonstrated a strong commitment to access initiatives for all audiences, especially seniors,” says Kate D. Levin, commissioner of cultural affairs for New York City.
“Donald is fascinating and perplexing, one of the most complicated people I have ever tried to figure out,” says Karen Kedmey, former manager of media relations at RMA. It’s impossible to know how much of his intense personality was determined by his family’s tragic circumstances. He is descended from Polish and Russian Jews. His father came to the United States at twenty-one, but all of his family was lost in the Holocaust. As he told the Washington Post, “…every brother, sister, nephew, and niece was exterminated. I was a ten-year-old at the end of the war, and I watched my father’s anguish as he tried and tried to find them.”
The Rubin family was activist, socialist, and pro-labor, and Rubin’s father was the chief figure in a drive to organize hotel workers in the thirties and soon became president of the New York Hotel Trades Council. Rubin says he and his father fought for union members by demanding and getting cost control for union health funds. In 1980, Rubin founded MultiPlan, a managed health care company. Through MultiPlan, Rubin says, he was able to create union health insurance packages that were more extensive, less costly, and more streamlined, and the cost savings were passed on to the workers through salary increases. He grew MultiPlan into the largest independent preferred-provider organization in the country before selling it to The Carlyle Group in 2006.
Shelley Rubin has said that her husband’s family experience gave him a particular sensitivity toward people of the Diaspora, people like the Tibetans whose culture is under attack, that it inspired a need to help save, preserve, and give back. Donald Rubin says, “We have always seen art as a source of joy, inspiration, and healing. Given my background, I also see it as a means of positive social change and cultural education.”
But Kedmey thinks it’s more than that. “A lot of other people have dealt with similar struggles and come from similar backgrounds and they don’t end up like him,” she says. “Somehow he processed his background and his life in a particular way, and applied it to his work and the world in a way others don’t.”
Rubin’s working style is unusual for an experienced businessperson. In a documentary on the RMA website about the making of the museum, the designer Milton Glaser says, “Donald’s thesis is you put a bunch of people in a room and whoever comes out alive, wins. So the process has been….very interesting.” Rubin’s response is that “out of the dialectic and the struggle between people comes greatness.” He says working that way is just part of his personality.
That personality is a very strong one. “He fights against bureaucracy constantly,” says one person close to Rubin, “and that either drives people crazy or they get it and love it and figure out how to work with it.” Sometimes Rubin assigns projects to a number of people with divergent styles to see who comes up with the best idea; this upsets participants who believe they are the only ones tasked. And he does not call on the “logical” experts for advice, preferring instead to get input from a wide range of people he trusts at many different levels. It’s a bit chaotic at times, but it’s creative, which is important given the Rubins’ ambitions for the museum.
From the beginning, the real challenge for RMA has been getting people in the doors and up to the galleries. Attendance has increased gradually and is running at around 150,000 annually. But Rubin is not satisfied. He issued a mandate at the beginning of 2008, which he describes in typical no-nonsense language: “I said we have to increase attendance by 50 percent. I told people we can sit on our asses and be complacent, or else we can get busy. We will get pretty close to meeting our goal.”
RMA is on the map, and it has brought together fabulous resources and assembled an impressive, creative team. But how will the Rubins—who chose to locate this unique treasure on a quiet, tree-lined side street in residential Chelsea—lure people away from Museum Mile, which is across the city on the Upper East Side and home to a dozen top museums, including several of the most famous in the world?
“When we hired Tim McHenry,” Donald Rubin says, “my only guidance was, ‘Make it happen!’ ” Rubin’s assignment for him: “I want to make this museum a destination spot in New York City.”
McHenry is, at least in all matters of style, the other half of a very odd couple. He is even taller than Rubin, reed-thin, bespectacled, and he speaks with a British accent left over from years at a British boarding school. At forty-eight, he schedules himself tightly, yet is generous enough to take ten minutes away from an interview to fetch coffee for a visitor on a cold, rainy morning.
McHenry has been given the somewhat unusual title of “producer,” to go along with his role as head of programming at the museum. As a story in the New York Times said, McHenry’s title “describes a role that more museum professionals are acknowledging as important to attracting larger, more diverse, and younger audiences.”
Both men are highly intelligent, extremely capable, determined, and reputed to have tempers. McHenry knew that developing an audience for the RMA art would present a challenge. “There was a slither of cognoscenti in this city who understood Asian art,” he says, “and only a small percentage of them were into Himalayan art. Clearly it was going be a struggle to get people in here.”
McHenry believed that RMA had to create social activity around the art, and he credits the Rubins for understanding that. “They knew instinctively from the start that programming had to be a mainstay of the museum. The value of allowing people to be stimulated, to come together on multiple levels—social, intellectual, artistic—was enormous.”
Himalayan art is the point and mission of the museum, but the programs, in addition to getting people in the door, connect the art to everyday life. The Rubin has been “incredibly successful” in making that happen, says Elena Park, an assistant vice-president at the Metropolitan Opera. “The thing that struck me immediately was the way they were able to work Himalayan art into conversations about culture, performance art, visual art, science, films.”
McHenry says the way he programs is “by association, which is the way our minds actually work, rather than by numbers. Making sometimes lateral leaps in different directions surprises and therefore often delights people who would not normally attend a program about the ‘niche’ subject, but might when made relevant to their area of interest.”
Performance artist Laurie Anderson, who has appeared at RMA several times, agrees. “They are really original, able to make very good connections between the art and artists, writers,” she told me. Country singer Roseanne Cash found it almost shockingly easy to pull Himalayan and Buddhist themes from pop songs. “The ‘Wheel of Life’ paintings provided a lot of inspiration and focus. One of my own songs is called ‘The Wheel,’ and I built a show around that. I did shows on the ‘Hungry Ghosts’—there are thousands of songs about craving, never being satisfied.” In “Magic Numbers,” a show she did with Elvis Costello, they only performed songs with numbers in the titles.
RMA programs are an ever-changing array of films, music, dance, and discussions. Much of the programming lands on Friday night, presenting a vertical sampler of the museum’s offerings. The galleries become free after 7 p.m. on Fridays, and while they wait, visitors can stop at the K2 Lounge, recently designated a “City Pick” by influential city guide Time Out New York.
K2, named for the world’s second-highest mountain, emerges at 6 p.m. when dimming lights transform the museum’s daytime cafe into a bar, with liquor, battery-lit candles, and a DJ playing fusion music. Polite patrons line up three-deep at the bar, some to buy the special cocktails that McHenry stirs up each week to go with the films, which happen later. For the showing of The Dark Crystal (Jim Henson and the Muppets, 1982), he says they concocted “something pretty fab, very purple, with pomegranate juice and a large rock crystal of sugar plopped in it.”
At 7 p.m., music begins on the lower level in the museum’s 137-seat theatre. Sometimes jazz, sometimes bluegrass, Irish folk songs, or blues. Always acoustic. Roseanne Cash plays there frequently. “I do love performing in the Rubin theater,” she says. “It’s challenging, and exciting. I realized the first time I performed there how easy it had been to hide behind a microphone. Having all amplification removed felt very naked and a little scary at first, and then, of course, very liberating.”
“Cabaret Cinema” begins at 9.30. This fascinating, somewhat mischievous program shows classics, arcane foreign films, and a few zany old clunkers. Themes often relate to the exhibits and yet can be wonderfully eclectic. During “Female Buddhas,” for example, it presented the splendid Diva (1981, French), Fritz Lang’s amazing Metropolis (1927, Germany), and Mary Poppins (1964).
McHenry’s most stunning success to date was “Brainwave,” a series of more than one hundred events in 2008 that examined how art, music, and meditation affect the brain. It was put together by the Rubin and five other institutions. Among the highlights, McHenry says, were “The Geography of Bliss: Is Happiness a Physical Condition or an Illusion?”; “Does Time Go By?,” in which two leading academics compared Eastern and Western approaches to time; and “The Tibetan Book of the Dead: What Happens in our Brains as We Die?” in which, says McHenry, neurologist Kevin Nelson was introduced to the notion of the bardo and went away determined to include this philosophy in his future studies.
“I love the way he tied the arts and neuroscience together,” says Laurie Anderson, speaking of her experience of “Brainwave.” “It seems to me that other museums used to do more of that kind of thing, but they stopped. I don’t know why.” Anderson says she will always be grateful to McHenry for introducing her to the Chirgilchin throat singers from the Tuvan area of southern Siberia, whom she joined in concert at the museum and subsequently toured with. “Tim makes very long-distance connections,” she says. “He reminds you the world is bigger out there than you think.”
“Brainwave” will continue in 2009, and the Jain exhibit and the continuation of the Tibetan painting series are on the horizon, but what does the big picture, the future, look like at RMA? Donald Rubin has just brought in a new chief curator, Martin Brauen, formerly head of the Department of Tibet, Himalaya and Far East at the Ethnographic Museum of the University of Zurich, Switzerland. What will this mean for the museum?
“Life is a journey,” says Rubin. “Our new curator will take things in a new direction. I don’t know what that will be, but I know some change is inevitable. And that’s good.”
“Donald does not think in terms of three-, five-, ten-year plans,” says Karen Kedmey. “The bottom line is he wants the museum to be around forever, to become a lasting institution in the fabric of New York City.” Gelek Rinpoche calls RMA a “treasure house” and says Rubin is doing “wonderful, wonderful things for Buddhists and all of humanity. He’s doing so much in so many ways, not only with the images and the paintings, but very important, by supporting the work of great scholars like Gene Smith and Jeff Watt. He’s preserving an endangered language and culture and the precious teachings of the great masters.”
Gelek Rinpoche believes there may be some transcendent logic to the fact that Donald Rubin is making all of this happen. “I wonder if he doesn’t have a karmic connection to Buddha. He says he’s not a Buddhist, but really, he has a deeper understanding of the meaning of the art than many others who run around saying what great Buddhists they are.”
Asked about this, Rubin shrugs. “I don’t know. I’m not a Buddhist, but some of my friends think there must have been a psychic connection in a previous life.” Then, with a smile, he adds, “Maybe so. Who knows?”