posted 2012-02-01 11:00:27

Hunter Signs Deal with Rubin Museum

The Rubin Museum is an exotic escape 

Peter Dunifon

Staff Writer

On July 1, 2011, Hunter College formed a partnership with the Rubin Museum of Art, embarking on a collaborative program that allows all Hunter students, faculty and staff to visit the museum for free with the presentation of a valid ID. This allows students to see old Himalayan paintings and sculptures in all their subtle beauty. The Buddhas, goddesses and historical events so carefully depicted are now accessible to the entire Hunter community.

Located in Chelsea, on the corner of 7th Avenue and 17th Street, the Rubin can feel like a world away from the city. On a Wednesday evening earlier this year, visitors were greeted by the enchanting music of Anjana Roy. She was playing classical Indian music on the sitar with accompaniment by Polash Gomes, who was playing tabla.

Their meditative music filled the museum, drifting from the bottom of the spiral staircase where they played and throughout the Rubin’s seven floors. The serenity of the moment was almost magical, but at the Rubin, this type of event is far from unusual. International artists, musicians and DJs come to the Rubin to perform nearly every week of the year.

By train, the Rubin is only a thirty-minute trip from Hunter. With a Hunter ID serving as a cultural passport, students can access the sacred art and cultures of the Himalayas, which extends over two millennia and across a region reaching from the Tibetan Plateau to Nepal, Mongolia, Bhutan, and beyond.

Exploring the Rubin can feel like an adventure. Starting at the first floor and moving up through the Rubin’s permanent collection, one gets a sense of the evolution of Himalayan sacred traditions as they migrated from northern India to Nepal to Tibet and China.

Moving up through the Rubin’s seven floors brings one to seasonally rotated exhibitions. These exhibitions might explore a specific theme more deeply, as in “Mirror of the Buddha,” which examines early Tibetan portraits of Buddhist masters painted in both north Indian and Nepalese-inspired styles. On November 18, the top floor opened a new exhibition of Modern Indian art, “Modernist Art from India: The Body Unbound.”

Of course, the best way to appreciate the art of the Rubin is to take a tour, and the Rubin offers many opportunities to do this. A good place to start is with the “Taste of RMA” tour. These tours are an hour long and lead groups, usually ranging between eight and twenty people, through a selection of pieces throughout the museum.

If strapped for time, the Rubin also offers short “Five Minute Focus Tours.” These tours vary in theme each day and are an easy way to get acquainted with a specific work of art. Afterwards, one can freely explore the museum.

When first visiting the Rubin, a good place to start one’s exploration is at the Wheel of Existence, which is said to be the only image discussed by the Buddha. The painting is a more modern depiction of the cycles of life, death and rebirth all held in the jaws of a fierce figure, known as Yama, who represents death and impermanence. It is said that the Buddha drew a wheel for his students in the sand and asked them to pass it along after his death. Now the image is a common sight in Himalayan regions, where it can be seen at the entrances of nearly all monasteries and temples. Looking at this piece, it is easy to get lost. Concentric rings depict the types of lives we might live, as if in stages. The wheel reaches out towards a life of wisdom and compassion but remains centered at its core around the ideas of ignorance, attachment and aversion. This central image is depicted as a snake, a bird and a pig, chasing each other in an endless circle and biting at each other’s tails.

As a teaching tool of Himalayan sacred traditions, art takes many forms at the Rubin. There is a portable Mani shrine, once used as a teaching tool for traveling Buddhist monks. In addition, on the third floor there are photographic reproductions of murals in the Lukhang Temple, a temple in Lhasa, Tibet. There is also a Tibetan shrine room, a meditative space filled with a beautiful selection of Buddhist artifacts, situated on the second floor.

The Rubin also offers a wide range of events, appealing to a variety of interests. On Friday nights, when the museum is open free to the public and for extended hours, there is typically a DJ spinning in the lounge. On these nights, a receipt from buying something at the bar is also a ticket to a movie screening downstairs. These movies range from A Clockwork Orange to Sofia Coppola’s version of Marie Antoinette and many more.

The Rubin Museum also has interesting connections to Hunter College. The Head of Education and Visitor Experience, Marcos Stafne, is a Hunter alumnus. He established the Apprentice Museum Educators (AME), a highly competitive program that has so far selected four Hunter students to join its ranks over the last three years.

Last year, two AME apprentices were selected from Hunter, Amanda Bastone and Irene O’Hara. O’Hara now works as a Visitor Experience Associate at the museum, greeting visitors at the Admissions desk and giving tours. This academic year, Hunter students Tarona Haffezza and Brigitte Moreno were also selected to serve as apprentices.

Several classes have made trips to the Rubin Museum as well. Professor Wendy Raver has taken her Religion and the Arts class there, while faculty member Laura O’Neil has gone with her Nature of Religion students.

The current exhibition in the museum’s lower level gallery, available through June 11th, is “Hero, Villain, Yeti: Tibet in Comics.”

For more information, visit the Rubin Museum online at Academic inquiries regarding Hunter’s partnership with the museum should be sent to Nicole Vartanian, Senior Advisor for Policy and Program Development, at