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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?”

Elisabeth Coleman is a journalist based New York City. She is currently writing a memoir about growing up in rural New York State.


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