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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 was directed by the late Gene Smith, the famed Tibetan scholar who 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, spoke of being impressed by what the Rubins have accomplished. Tibetan Buddhism, Smith told the Shambhala Sun, 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.

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