A debate has always existed about the role of museums in the representation of traditional art and craft. There are those that think museums detach craft from its true functionality, placing it behind glass casings and removing it from the grasp of the viewer. And there are those that view museums as preservers of crafts that are dying off in our modernizing world. Of course there are museums that have dealt sensitively with these issues in innovative manners like the Fuller Craft Museum in Massachusetts. However, in spite of these initiatives, most museums either artificially elevate craft into the same category as fine art or depreciate it as a mere cultural artifact. So when I recently visited the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City, I was pleasantly surprised to find a careful balance that presented craft as functional, beautiful and valuable.
The Rubin Museum of Art (RMA), located in a historic building in Chelsea NYC, is less than a year old yet boasts one of the largest and most in depth collection of Himalayan art in the world. With a focus purely on Himalayan art from the mountain regions of India, Pakistan, southwest China, Nepal, Bhutan and Burma, the RMA displays paintings, sculptures and textiles from the 12th through the 19th centuries. As a new frontier of art exploration, the RMA believes that Himalayan art can offer American viewers the opportunity to investigate the sacred, political and personal histories contained within.
The RMA’s mission statement highlights both preservation and documentation of their permanent collection while also focusing on connecting people with art through exhibits and educational programs. Their collection is described as containing “images of historical personages…stories told in lively paintings…sacred teachings, natural events, and calamities…personified in forms moving freely between experience and imagination.” Shelley and Donald Rubin were the original collectors behind the permanent collection and the RMA was birthed out of their vision to share this art with people and make it available and accessible to all.
Through a variety of initiatives the RMA has already made a name for itself since its October 2004 opening. Rotating and permanent exhibits are curated to entice both scholars and new comers to Himalayan art, providing a wide spectrum of religious, personal and historical pieces. There is also two Explore Art galleries which explain the details and uses of some of the paintings and sculptures in the galleries. This unique aspect of the RMA assists in the balancing act I mentioned above. By adding valuable explanation, the mandalas and bronze Buddhas re-absorb their functionally and authenticity. The RMA also offers educational and other programs for children and adults that further explain the uses and meanings of Himalayan art.
More information about the Rubin Museum of Art can be found on their website-www.rmanyc.org