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Where the Deities Live

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.


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