Before taking up a new position, I took a few days to do some museum-going in Manhattan, mostly looking at Asian art. I had read a bit about the Tibetan collections of Shelley and Donald Rubin, but this was my first visit to the Rubin Museum of Art (located in the old Barney's building in Chelsea, 17th Street between Sixth and Seventh). The museum opened last October and offers an elegant space that was very quiet on a Friday evening. In a review of the Rubin for New York Magazine, Mark Stevens wrote that:
During the late nineties, reluctant to give their collection to an established institution that would bury it in storage, they decided instead to construct their own museum and, in an inspired bit of serendipity, bought the Barneys building in a bankruptcy sale for $22 million.
A six-story spiral staircase, which Andrée Putman originally designed for Barneys, centers the exhibition space. If the stairs once evoked a Hollywood romance—Garbo swirling downward in a feathery boa to meet her waiting lover—they now suggest cycles, transcendence, and the rippling forms of Buddhist art. The architect Richard Blinder oversaw the transformation from a consumer showpiece into a museum, and Milton Glaser, together with Tim Culbert and Celia Imrey, worked on the design of the galleries. Overall, they have created a jewel-like and serene setting for the art.
Private collectons-turned-museums are often unusual creatures. The Barnes Foundation, presently outside Philadelphia, the Phillips Collection just off Washington's Dupont Circle, even the Pierpont Morgan Library in Manhattan, began as the collection and obsession of an individual (or two), but then grow beyond that individual's scope and control. The Barnes is struggling with this transformation now, decades after Dr. Barnes's death. The Rubin Museum does not yet face this challenge. It's formation is still fresh. The exhibit labels are a bit discursive and suggest the collectors' own enthusiasms. One particularly striking piece (not actually part of the Rubins's collection, but on loan from another collector) is a gilt metal sculpture of a dancing skeleton, which, the label indicates, would have served as a support for a ceremonial horn used by monks.
What the Rubin gains by its independence (instead of the collection being immersed in the larger collections of one of the great institutions) is highlighted by a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Asian collections. The breadth and depth of the Met's holdings are phenomenal, and the museum's presentation is rich. But the works that one views in considerable detail at the Rubin, a relatively narrow slice of Asian art explored in some depth, receives a brief survey overview at the Met. Such deep, narrow treatment of a subject, the Met (and indeed most museums) reserves for special exhibitions. They are not in the nature of displays of the permanent collections.
Delightful, thoughtful, even ruminative as the Rubin is, the Met's collections are simply far richer. Still, the strength of the Met's permanent collections lies not in painting, but in sculpture, where one finds a similar ruminative reiterative quality, exploring slight changes across time and geography.
A very light, pleasant note: At nearly all of the Met's statuettes of Ganesha, the dancing, pot-bellied, elephant-headed Hindu god of abundance, visitors had placed small offerings -- a few pennies, sometimes candies. It seems that even a museum's hushed darkness can't inhibit the impulse to make an offering for luck.