Rubin to Close and Become “A Museum Without Walls” This Fall

New York’s soaring prices have claimed another victim: The Rubin Museum is set to sell its building and transition to a global operation without a physical location. It will have one last hurrah at its Chelsea home, a final exhibit from mid-March until its Oct. 6 closing: “Reimagine: Himalayan Art Now.”

| 16 Feb 2024 | 01:46

The Rubin Museum, a Chelsea mainstay for 20 years, is set to close its doors and put the building up for sale, transitioning into a “global program” with exhibits that travel city to city.

With an annual influx of around 180,000 visitors, the museum, at 150 West 17th St. was renowned for its focus on Himalayan Art, and had been one of the cultural landmarks of the city since its establishment in 2004 by founders Donald and Shelley Rubin. The curated collection of the museum has nearly 4,000 Himalayan art pieces spanning 1,500 years.

“The definition of what a museum is has evolved dramatically in recent years. Historically, The Rubin’s culture embraces continual change and evolution, and in our new incarnation, we are redefining what a museum can be,” Noah Dorsky, Board President said in a press release.

Before the Museum’s closes its doors on Oct. 6, its final exhibition in the physical space will be the anniversary showcase titled “Reimagine: Himalayan Art Now,” running from March 15 to Oct. 6. This exhibition promises to be a profound exploration, featuring the works of over 30 contemporary artists, including many hailing from the Himalayan region and diaspora, as well as others inspired by Himalayan art and cultures.

Financial considerations have been a driving factor in the decision to sell the physical location. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to significant losses for physical spaces like museums, has also played a substantial role.

“The Rubin is proud to be in a strong financial position with a healthy endowment/sustaining fund. However, significant resources are required to own and operate a building in New York City, and the current model is not sustainable,” states the museum on its website.

Addressing speculations regarding the closing and its connection to recent reparations, the Museum firmly denies any such correlation. “Absolutely not,” stated the Rubin Museum. “The Rubin vehemently opposes the trafficking of stolen or looted cultural items, and has never knowingly acquired objects that are known to have been illicitly traded, smuggled, or stolen,” the museum states on its website. They have also reiterated their commitment to returning objects to their country of origin if they are found to have been looted.

In early 2022, The Rubin Museum engaged in returning two sculptures to Nepal after the Museum’s researchers confirmed that the sculptures had been looted. This action followed scrutiny from a nonprofit organization, the Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign, which raised questions about the history of the items.

The Museum will continue to preserve, study, interpret, and share its expansive collection. They have developed an extensive and proactive loan program that will facilitate interested parties worldwide in borrowing pieces from their collection.

“While it has been a privilege to welcome visitors to the Rubin in New York over the last 20 years, our anniversary inspired reflection on how we can achieve the greatest possible impact well into the future,” Shelley Rubin, co-founder stated. This contemplation appears to have driven the decision to transition to a digital platform and expand its reach globally.

In addition to the loan initiative, the museum has several upcoming projects already in progress. These include the installation of a “traveling version” of its interactive “Mandala Lab” in Milan, Italy, slated for Spring 2024. “The Gateway to Himalayan Art” exhibition is set to be showcased in universities across Florida, Ohio, Utah, Oregon, and California through 2026. The final exhibition in the Museum’s physical space, “Reimagine: Himalayan Art Now,” will be exhibited at Wrightwood 659 in Chicago in the fall of 2024.

The Museum has already ventured into the digital realm with initiatives such as its Mindfulness Meditation and AWAKEN podcasts.

As the city’s community braces for this transition, many have voiced concerns about the growing trend of closures of accessible and contemplative spaces in New York. “As a New Yorker who has relied on the Rubin as a space for gathering and reflecting, I’m deeply disappointed by this decision. I can only hope they reconsider their plans and leave the flagship location in place,” expressed Kiareixa Perez, a frequent visitor and Brooklyn resident. “Wanting to extend globally is wonderful in theory, however, without the physicality of spaces, the impact of such art and its energy is absolutely lost.”

The Museum will continue to operate until its closure, offering ongoing exhibitions and programs, including in-person mindfulness meditation sessions on Thursdays, its shop, and Café Serai, which transforms into the popular K2 Lounge on Friday nights.