As Shelley and Donald Rubin walked through the old Barney's store at the corner of 7th Avenue and West 17th Street in Chelsea, they felt a sense of comfort that they couldn't describe, but they knew that they had found the future home for their extensive collection of Himalayan art. They acquired the space and then began transforming the upscale clothier-cum-social scene into a temple for the enjoyment of art. The Rubin Museum of Art opened its doors in 2004, but well before then Tim McHenry and Patrick Sears were making plans on how to connect the RMA with the community. As Mr. Sears, Deputy Director of the RMA said, "a museum without people is just a whole lot of objects. It's the people that bring it to life." Being well away from Manhattan's Museum Mile meant that the RMA would have to work harder to bring people in, and that is Tim McHenry's specialty. Mr. McHenry, Producer at the RMA, originates the programming that brings people in to develop a familiarity with the art of the Himalayas -- an art too little known to many.
Building Relationships, Building an Audience
Mr. Sears and Mr. McHenry guided me around the RMA and spoke about their goal to become a destination. There is a high degree of thoughtfulness apparent in each element of the RMA from the moment you set your hand on the front door. All of the building materials are beautifully finished and chosen with an eye toward enhancing the museum-goer's experience. The colors of the walls are saturated rather than stark white, which reduces the sharp contrast between the walls and the art to create a greater feeling of calm and intimacy. The gift shop, one of the best seen at any museum in the city, features well chosen, high quality garments, literature and objects that are perfectly in keeping with the museum's Himalayan identity and not merely geared toward jamming a crowbar in the museumgoer's wallet. The Café at the Rubin Museum has evolved into its own destination with a menu that reflects the Himalayas. In short, everywhere you look there is a sense of mindfulness at work.
In the early days of the museum, Mr. Sears and Mr. McHenry reached out to everyone who was a known personality within a seven block radius of the RMA and began to draw them in. One of the earliest arrivals was Rosanne Cash who expressed the desire to make her first performance at the RMA something beyond just another gig. It's a relationship that has deepened over the years, so much so that Ms. Cash is having her 12th performance at the RMA on February 3rd to kick off this year's programming.
Relating music to themes that involve important elements of Himalayan art is not obvious at first glance, but the idea has grown and become a powerful force working toward the museum's goal of bringing in people and creating the energy necessary for the process of transformation to occur. Mr. McHenry refers to these events as "points of entry", which seems particularly apt. Music, dance, literature, sculpture, painting, cooking, poetry and film all come together with science and create new connections just through mere juxtaposition with each other. The result is Brainwave, one of the most interesting, refreshing and thought-provoking series you can find anywhere. The flip side of being far from Museum Mile is that you can do new and interesting things that other institutions shy away from. Uptown, the programs tend to be confined to the academic sort of topics that lack spontaneity or originality.
The theme of Brainwave 2012 is memory, which dovetails perfectly with the mandala that Mr. Sears and Mr. McHenry explained to me in thoughtful terms. Mr. McHenry pointed out that the essence of the mandala is that it serves as a device of visualization in which everything relates to a sutra, or lesson, that is symbolized by the figure at the center. Mandalas are not meant to be public art. They were made to be used by initiates as objects of meditation and contemplation. The images serve as an alternate architecture of the mind and can also be understood as mnemonic devices. At base they represent spiritual aspirations in pictorial form with complex symbology that serves to guide the initiate on the proper pathways to enlightenment. Figures and symbols within the mandala serve to remind the initiate or aspirant of the potential pitfalls or obstacles that one may encounter on the journey to reach the desired state of awareness. The philosophical underpinning of the art is to create a memory chain and the center of the artwork represents the spiritual goal. Each element of the artwork relates a part of the journey beginning with the outer wheel of fire (and yes, Ms. Cash is going to be singing her father's song, Ring of Fire) through which one must pass to begin the process of losing the attachments that are obstacles to spiritual growth. Then the aspirant must choose one of the four gates, the one most suited to his temperament, which leads into a beautiful garden filled with spiritual distractions. The ultimate goal of much of Buddhist thought and practice is philosophical and encourages a state of awareness and mindfulness that is very much in keeping with Mr. McHenry's intention with respect to Brainwave.
The Karma Chain
This year's edition of Brainwave puts neuroscientists together with various people. Some of the people are Scott Shepherd, who has memorized every word of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, food writer and editrix Ruth Reichl, neighborhood supporter and artist Laurie Anderson and many others to talk about how memory works and how and why it sometimes doesn't. Whether by accident or design, there are 108 steps, a sacred number in Buddhism, on the spiral staircase that used to lead to racks of clothes and now lead to intimate galleries dedicated to a more elevated purpose. They will begin each program with a grown up game of Telephone, in which one of the program's guest speakers will speak a phrase into the ear of the first audience member and it will be repeated up the chain to the top where the other guest speaker awaits the arrival of the final message to illustrate the fallibility of memory. The starting point for the conversation of the staged program is the comparison of the original message and the received message. It is intended to illustrate how unreliable short term memory can be with the simplest of messages.
A Mnemonic Art Tour
Following the Karma Chain is a brief tour through the galleries in which art that also serves the function of aiding memory is explored, including the sacred mandalas and paintings about the life of Buddha. Mr. McHenry feels that this is essential in preparing the mind to make new connections or associations, which is the whole purpose of his Brainwave programming. The guest speakers come without a script and are paired with a guest scientist. They have a topic at hand that concerns memory. Mr. McHenry exudes a quiet confidence that you can make wonderful things happen if you just make a place for it, and that is his goal with programming at the RMA.
The Film Series
Films are also a part of the Brainwave series and among the more interesting ones this season is a documentary called Caris' Peace, about an actress named Caris Corfman whose brain tumor resulted in the permanent loss of her short term memory. She was a graduate of the Yale school of drama, had appeared on Broadway in Amadeus and was on her way up in the acting world. An actress robbed of her ability to ever learn new lines is effectively out of a career. She lives trapped in the past and is unable to formulate new memories. Just Trial and Error is a film that explores the subject of consciousness and the experience of self while Music and Memory, which features Oliver Sacks, explores the world of Alzheimer's patients being treated with music from their past loaded onto iPods.
Taken all together, the picture emerges of a museum that is interested in much more than just itself. Too many museums create this type of programming with a condescending and pedantic air that fails to engage the public meaningfully or create new patrons. From the very beginning, before the doors opened, RMA was reaching out to neighborhood schools to foster awareness in children of the importance of art in their lives. Patrick Sears and Tim McHenry are not pompous art experts and they are interested in all art, not just the art within the walls of the RMA. They are unpretentious, easily understood and vitally passionate about finding ways to reach out to the public to give others new and different ways to experience and understand art. They recognize and appreciate the unique place they hold in the city as representatives of an arts institution and they are always eager to share what they know. Any one of these special programs creates one of Mr. McHenry's "points of entry" in which people can come to a fuller understanding of their place in the world and enjoy a greater appreciation of how art reflects and enhances one's existence. Browse the schedule and find something to attend. Brainwave 2012 is just one of the many compelling things going on at the RMA. The only guarantee is that your brainwaves will be stimulated.