Rubin Museum of Art

Edification value  
Entertainment value  3/5
Should you go?  
Time spent 203 minutes (including a leisurely supper)
Best thing I saw or learned Tibetan Buddhism has a macabre streak a mile wide, and I find it deeply endearing. They make bowls out of skulls and trumpets out of human leg bones.  Perhaps not for everyone, but I consider that a healthy attitude toward mortality. What goth (or goth sympathizer) wouldn’t love the idea of dancing in the charnel fields with the Lords of the Cremation Grounds?

Rubin Museum of Art, Manhattan

Update: Feb 17, 2024: I’m very sad to learn that the Rubin Museum of Art is closing down as of October, 2024. As you can tell from this review, I love the Rubin, and will be sorry to see it go, or as they euphemistically put it become “a museum without walls.” Uh huh. Well, Buddhism is nothing if not about cycles, perhaps a future wall-bound incarnation will return someday. In the meantime, New York will be poorer for the loss — go while you can! 

New York’s museums house themselves in a wide variety of repurposed spaces. Disused armories, synagogues, navy yards, customs houses, aircraft carriers, robber-baron mansions (galore), activist storefronts… nearly anything can be transformed into a museum with sufficient effort of will (and money).

But I believe only one museum in the city exists in a former department store. The old Barney’s, on 17th Street near Seventh Avenue, is now the home of the Rubin Museum of Art. It’s audacious that a former home of high-end fashion retail now teaches people about Tibetan Buddhism and related Himalayan cultures. Both rarefied atmospheres in their own ways, but that’s the only thing they have in common.

The Rubin, though, stands as a supremely successful museum conversion. It offers seven floors of exhibit space, a far better restaurant than you’d expect, and (hearkening back to the DNA of the building) a lovely little gift shop full of Buddhist and New Agey treasures (but sadly no leg bone trumpets).

The Rubin Program

Rubin Museum StaircaseOne of the best museum staircases in the city winds up the middle of the space, with galleries surrounding. A central skylight floods the place with natural light.

Two floors focus on the subject at hand, Donald and Shelley Rubin’s tremendous collection of Tibetan Buddhist art and artifacts. One floor gives visitors a “101-level” intro to the religion, and why the art looks the way it does (the explanation of mandalas is particularly good). The second floor focuses  on “masterpieces,” looking in greater depth at highlights of the collection in the context of their times and places of origin.

Green Tara, Rubin Museum, Manhattan
Green Tara, Tibet, 13th Century

The third floor currently offers three spaces for meditation and contemplation. One is a reproduction of an actual shrine, dim and quiet but at the same time providing a sensory overload of statuary and related paraphernalia. A second space offers a sound-based meditative experience. And the third contains a video art installation documenting a Jain ritual.

Buddhist Shrine Recreation, Rubin Museum

The final two floors host temporary exhibits.

I went just in time to see a show of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s tremendous photographs of India from the early 1900s. Cartier-Bresson was present for the final days of the British Raj and just happened to have taken pictures Gandhi the day before his assassination — then stayed to photograph his funeral. Those pictures helped establish his name and reputation. As with all his work, he was marvelously able to be at the right place at the right time. That was true for events of global significance, but also for the tiny moments: the wind blowing a piece of fabric in a perfect arc; a candid bit of laughter between friends; a goat looking terribly bored with the world.

An Exhibition of Sounds

Rubin Museum Sound Exhibition, New York
Tibetan Musical Instruments and Listening Stations

The other temporary show was audacious: focused on sound. I’ve written a lot about the sounds of museums in these reviews. For example:

  • My enjoyment of appropriate background music in museums, like at MAD and the Museum at FIT.
  • The kid-generated noise levels of the Transit Museum.
  • The Jazz Museum‘s inherent challenge as a museum dedicated to living musical genre.

But the Rubin pulled off its sound show brilliantly well.

Partly it was credit to technology: they deployed some amazing insulating materials and directional speakers to keep audio from bleeding from one area to another.  And some really great headphones.

But partly it came down to a deeply thoughtful approach to the story they wanted to convey. The show combined contemporary artists’ sound installations with traditional Buddhist chants associated with particular events or icons. It struck a nearly perfect balance, and it both taught and entertained.

Rubin Museum Sound Exhibit, New York
Feel the Sound

And it engaged other senses too. Some areas required a visitor to stand in front of an image to trigger the associated sound experience; some places you touched the wall to do it. The entire staircase was a sound installation, varying as people moved up and down it. And in discussing chants and mantras related to death, they asked you to lie down on a bench. That last felt hokey, but I liked the tie between listening and acting.


Kang Ling, Rubin Museum, New York
Tibetan Leg Bone Trumpet (Kang Ling)

Mission as Robe, not Straitjacket

One of the things I love about the Rubin is that it takes its mission statement seriously, but it wears it lightly. It’s a monk’s robe, not a straitjacket. I think the curators and directors wisely realized that if they just focused on the Rubins’ collection, and Tibetan Buddhist principles, teachings, and iconography, people would go once, but might not feel inclined to go twice. So there is a through-line of contemporary art that riffs off or illuminates or complements the traditional, that works really well.

Mandala, Rubin Museum, New York
The Rubin is this, but not JUST This

The Rubin works hard to stay relatable, and to connect esoteric Buddhist concepts to our modern, material, Western world. They put on fantastic film series, always tying into a broad theme from an exhibition, like surprise, or dreams, but featuring popular Western films. They’ve developed a specialty around events that bring disparate thoughtful people together to discuss a topic where their fields of expertise intersect.

The Cartier-Bresson show exemplifies that spirit — so far as I can tell, the great photographer never got anywhere near Tibet or Nepal. Few if any of the people in his India photographs were Buddhists. And yet, as one of the wellsprings for Buddhism, photographs of India work there.

The only thing I don’t get from the Rubin is the Rubins themselves.  Perhaps it keeps with Buddhism’s denial of the ego that although their name is on the place, it doesn’t tell the story of them as collectors.  I’m sure I could find out online, but it felt like the museum itself could have made that story more explicit.

Barney’s and the Cycle of Rebirth

Rubin Museum, ManhattanBarney’s must have done something truly fantastic to merit this reincarnation. The Rubin Museum is one of the very best mid-sized museums in the city. It deserves far more attention than it gets, and everyone should make a  pilgrimage.  Far cheaper than a trip to Tibet, and less jet lag to boot.

Friday dinner at the Rubin. Leg Bone (not a trumpet–and lamb, not human) on biryani

Friday late evenings with a DJ in the cafe, often a film screening, and access to the galleries, all for free, are one of my favorite ways to kick off a weekend.  The restaurant serves amazing food and drinks — stay for dinner!

The Rubin’s subject matter creates a huge differentiator from the Western-centric Morgan, Frick, or the Neue. It thrives in a glorious space. If other department stores around New York get converted into museums half so good as the Rubin, that’d be a huge silver lining to come out of the ongoing physical retail apocalypse.

Like at The Cloisters, contemplating the faith that drove the creation of the art at the Rubin Museum leaves me serener and more centered than I started out. Even if I don’t share that faith. Thanks to the Rubin, I can claim a sliver of understanding of the ideas and beliefs that drive it, in addition to appreciating the aesthetics.

Shri Devi at Rubin Museum, New York
Shri Devi as Makzor Gyelmo, “Queen who Repels Armies,” Central Tibet, ca 1720

For Reference:

Address 150 West 17th Street, Manhattan
Cost  General Admission:  $15; free on Friday evenings
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