Charity is important but knowledge is power. If you can’t mark Nepal on a map, then you should consider visiting the Rubin Museum of Art to better educate yourself about the history, culture and community of the South Asian nation. (If you do know your geography, then you should not need another reason to fuel your curiosity.) Located between India and China, Nepal is an important source for sacred Buddhist and Hindu art, of which 600 objects are owned by the Rubin Museum in Manhattan.
Jews are no strangers to South Asian art. In fact, Donald and Shelley Rubin, Jewish philanthropists, decided to open the Rubin Museum to display their private collection of Himalayan art in a public institution in Chelsea in 2004. The Rubins, who founded the health care network MulitPlan, started collecting Tibetan art by accident when they were completely taken by a Tibetan painting of a female Buddhist deity displayed in a Madison Avenue gallery. After the couple’s first purchase in 1974, they were under the Himalayan art spell, and they continued building their collection of art with works from Afghanistan to Tibet, Nepal, India, Bhutan, Mongolia, and Nepal.
The range of cultures in the Rubins’ collection parallels the range of centuries and styles represented in the museum. Displaying such a vast array of cultural objects is no easy feat, especially in New York, where the public’s expectations are astronomically high and knowledge of Himalayan art is quite low.
Since the Rubin Museum is still a new institution on the cultural scene, it has the “enviable flexibility to adapt to the expectations of today’s and tomorrow’s visitors,” explains Patrick Sears, the executive director of the Rubin Museum, in an interview. With a central six-story spiral staircase (originally designed for Barneys, formerly in this space), each floor-wide exhibition focuses on a theme to intersperse carefully curated comparisons, but also to highlight special exhibitions that range from Tibet to India, and from ancient to contemporary art. This flexibility between various media and cultures represents the Rubin Museum’s ability to function as a bridge for cross-cultural connections between the Eastern visual objects on view and its mostly Western visitors.
Now on view on the second floor is “Gateway to Himalayan Art," an exhibition designed as a starting point for visitors to engage with the basics of Himalayan art. The primary figures, symbols, materials and techniques are explained. Once you feel well-versed, you can step into the popular exhibit that truly creates an oasis in Manhattan: the museum’s Tibetan Buddhist Shrine Room, where paintings, sculptures, textiles and ritual objects are arranged as they would be in a traditional Tibetan home shrine. You can easily lose track of time when gazing at the flickering butter lamps and imagining life a few worlds away.
That each viewer can create their own connection to the art on view is precisely why it is important to visit the Rubin Museum now. As Sears notes, “Our world continues to get smaller, and that means it becomes increasingly important to understand each other. A tragic event like the Nepal earthquake reminds us how crucial it is to both preserve cultural heritage and to remind visitors that the culture is very much alive.” Dedicated to honoring Nepal’s cultural heritage, the Museum was quick to implement and publicize a series of educational programs, musical sessions and art installations focused on Nepalese art.
Millions of donations from Jewish and other organizations and individuals surely will help rebuild homes and feed Nepalese families. That Nepal is also reconstructed through storytelling and understanding is to insure that the country is not just remembered as another headline about another natural disaster but rather as a country with a rich and influential cultural heritage.
The Rubin Museum of Art is at 150 West 17th Street (between 6th and 7th Avenues), New York.
Aimee Rubensteen is a writer and curator living in New York City. She works at Sotheby's administering the Egyptian, Classical and Western Asiatic Antiquities Department.