This fall, the Rubin Museum of Art, an institution dedicated to art of the Himalayas, will close its New York space after 20 years in operation.
But rather than ceasing to exist, the museum will continue on as a spaceless institution that provides long-term loans and as an organization that will facilitate research. Additionally, the museum will continue to facilitate a prize for Himalayan art and a series of grants for projects focused on that field.
The museum’s final day in its Chelsea home will be October 6. A spokesperson for the museum told ARTnews that with the Rubin closing its physical space, the institution would lay off around 40 percent of its staff, with workers in the front-of-house roles most prominently affected.
In an interview, director Jorrit Britschgi, who has led the museum since 2017, said this new model for the Rubin was an attempt to turn the institution into a “global organization.”
“It’s leveraging the collection, leveraging our knowledge, leveraging our financial resources, and really thinking about what we’ve always been thinking about, which is: How is it that a museum in the 21st century still looks very much like a museum of the 20th century?” Britschgi said. “How can we redefine how we operate as an organization?”
Britschgi said that the Rubin, like just about every other institution in the US, had faced difficulties during the pandemic, witnessing a decline in foot traffic and a financial shortfall following a long-term closure in 2020. But he said the closure of the New York museum was in no way a response to pandemic-era troubles.
The Rubin was founded in 2004 as a home for the collection of Donald and Shelley Rubin, who had amassed a range of art from the Himalayas—from scroll paintings to thangkas to Buddhas and more—over the course of the decades prior. The museum’s offerings have also included contemporary art exhibitions in addition to permanent collection presentations.
Among the museum’s main attractions has been its Tibetan Buddhist shrine room, which is intended to recreate the experience of being in a religious space via scroll paintings, Buddhas, textiles, musical instruments, and more. The shrine room will close along with the rest of the museum in October, but a Rubin spokesperson said the museum is searching for a new permanent home for it in New York.
Set within a former Barney’s department store, the museum was praised by critics upon its opening for standing out in a cramped art scene. Holland Cotter, in his 2004 New York Times review of the museum, praised the institution for the way it “sticks to the modern Western ideal of exhibiting art in an uncluttered, atmospherically lighted, ideology-free zone.”
A Tibetan Buddhist shrine room was one of the main attractions of the Rubin Museum of Art.
Like many other institutions that hold ancient artifacts, the Rubin has been forced to contend with calls for repatriation of parts of its holdings in recent years. The museum voluntarily repatriated a 14th-century carving and a 17th-century torana, or a gateway associated with Buddhist and Hindu architecture, to Nepal in 2022. A year later, the museum also sent back a Bhairava mask. Researchers had offered proof that both objects were stolen from sites in Nepal by smugglers.
At the time of the 2022 repatriation, the Rubin said it was conducting a full review of its collection. But some activists have continued to claim that the Rubin holds stolen artifacts. Britschgi said the New York museum’s closure had “nothing to do with repatriation.”
The repatriations led the Rubin’s leadership to back a museum project in Nepal last August. Britschgi carried out discussions with the board to fundraise for the realization of a project in Kathmandu that helped locals transform a Buddhist monastery dating back to the 11th century into the region’s first museum.
The museum’s involvement in the project drew scrutiny from local repatriation advocates in Nepal, who viewed it as an attempt to divert attention from other restitution claims related to the looting of religious sites during the 1970s and 1980s. Britschgi said this week that the Rubin will continue to make provenance research efforts a primary concern and that the process for handling repatriations won’t change as the museum’s model transitions.
In its new form, the Rubin Museum will continue to circulate its collection, sending out objects on long-term loan and continuing to facilitate study of these works.