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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Donald Rubin

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-12-28

Donald Rubin, a former longshoreman, had little expertise in art, but one fall afternoon in 1998 he decided that he and his wife Shelley would start an eponymous museum in Manhattan.

"Should we be doing this?" Mrs. Rubin said to her husband as he plunked down a sizable amount of cash to buy the old Barney's building at Seventh Avenue and West 17th Street.

It was a rhetorical question. They had already decided to buy the building, which was being offered in a bankruptcy sale for $22 million. It was just the kind of edifice that the Rubins needed to house their rapidly growing collection of Himalayan and Asian art.

"Everyone we knew said to us, 'You must be crazy,'" Mr. Rubin, who's co-chairman of the one-year-old Rubin Museum of Art along with his wife, said. "A museum? We were amateurs in the field. But I trusted my instincts, and I felt that we just had to go ahead."

It was instinct, too, that got Mr. Rubin into collecting art. He and Shelley were walking up Madison Avenue back in 1975 when a painting in an art dealer's window caught their eye. It was an 18th century Himalayan work of Buddhist provenance. The price was $1,500.

"You fall in love with somebody - and you don't quite know why - it was just like that," Mr. Rubin said. "It took me no more than 10 seconds to make the decision to acquire that painting. If I'd thought about it, I'd never have bought it. I don't want to know things intellectually - I want to feel the emotions."

He couldn't have known it then, but that purchase led to the building of a collection of Himalayan art that has arguably become one of the world's biggest. The Rubins, and their museum, own more than 1,500 paintings, sculptures and textiles, most of them dating back a thousand years. Recent acquisitions - some of them originating in the 11th century - originate beyond the mountainous Himalayan region to Mongolia, China and Tibet.

"My wife and I buy art for the aesthetics - we buy from the heart," Mr. Rubin said. "Why a museum? We wanted to share our great passion for art. One is conscious of one's mortality. So why not do something meaningful within one's life span? It's better for art to be enjoyed by everyone in a museum than being stored some place."

Their six-story museum at 150 West 17th Street attracted more than 100,000 visitors in its first year, including scholars of art that was created in the service of religions such as Buddhism, Bon, and Hinduism.

Until that fateful walk up Madison Avenue 30 years go, Mr. Rubin wasn't fully aware that such art existed. Now, of course, Himalayan art has achieved iconic - and very expensive - status.

Indeed, many pieces in the Rubin collection are virtually priceless. Most certainly would fetch a great deal more in today's market than the original price: popular interest in Asian art, particularly Indian miniatures and paintings and sculptures from the Himalayan region, has increased with Asia's ascendancy among Americans.

"What did I know about art?" Mr. Rubin said. "I was the son of a union leader, Jay Rubin. My mother, Molly, focused on ethical values as I was growing up. Art wasn't in the cards. I spent my impressionable years as a longshoreman."

That stint came after graduation from Oglethorpe University, a venerated Atlanta institution that was founded in 1835.

"My daughter often berates me for not going to a better known college," Mr. Rubin said.

But studying in the South gave him a better idea of America's ethnic diversity. It inculcated in him a tolerance for people from all stations of life.
"And as a longshoreman, I was able to deepen that tolerance," Mr. Rubin said. "I learned how important it was to respect people and their beliefs."

He met all sorts of people when he started as a cook at the National Maritime Union. Another job involved arranging funerals of sailors; the funeral houses would grab every penny of the $500 in insurance that the deceased held.

An article that he wrote for a union publication on the American way of death earned him appearances on radio and television talk shows.

"That gave me self confidence," Mr. Rubin said. "I began to think that I would be a contender."

He became more than that. Not long after leaving the maritime union, Mr. Rubin and his wife founded Multiplan, a nation-wide health care company.
"We created an industry that didn't exist," Mr. Rubin said.

In creating Multiplan, Shelley Rubin proved invaluable. She held a master's degree in public administration, with a concentration in health care. She had worked at New York Medical College and Montefiore Hospital, using computers for research into psychoactive drugs and in creating clinical laboratory data analysis systems.

Multiplan flourished, and it made the Rubins wealthy.

That wealth helped them establish the museum, whose total cost was around $100 million, according to Mr. Rubin. The annual budget of $9 million is raised through admission tickets -- $10 for adults, and $7 for seniors, students, artists, and those who live nearby in the 1011 and 10001 zip code neighborhoods. Funds also come from a multi-level membership program; and federal agencies and private foundations support shows that have been broadened to include Jain, Sikh and Islamic art.

In addition to the physical facilities, the Rubins maintain two Web sites, www.himalayanart.org and www.laborarts.org. Their idea is to eventually digitalize every known work of Himalayan art.

So, the reporter asked, what exactly was it about Himalayan art that made the Rubins commit themselves so heavily to starting and sustaining a museum.

Mr. Rubin smiled.

"My Buddhist friends tell me that I must have had a connection to Himalayan art in a past life," he said. "But in this life, I am living a unique experience. And being able to share it - that's a great joy."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist


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