The Rubin Museum of Art will close its physical location in Manhattan after 20 years and focus on facilitating grants and long-term loans, cultivating its digital presence, and organizing traveling exhibitions and programs, according to a statement this week. The institution centered on art of the Himalayan regions, which has faced repatriation claims and financial challenges in recent years, will lay off 40% of its staff when it shutters its Chelsea space on October 6.
The museum was founded in 2004 to showcase the collection of Donald and Shelley Rubin, who began acquiring Nepalese art in the mid-1970s, and is perhaps best known for its immersive Tibetan Buddhist Shrine Room. The institution announced that it will sell its 70,000-square-foot space housed inside a former Barney’s department store. In 2014, the Rubin sold part of its Chelsea location for $57 million.
Faced with repatriation claims, the Rubin returned two objects that were identified as looted to Nepal in 2022. This summer, Nepali activists decried the museum’s role in a “special exhibition” at the Itumbaha monastery in the Kathmandu Valley, a collaboration with two local cultural organizations that protesters criticized as a “whitewashing” tactic intended to clear the Rubin’s name.
Emiline Smith, a Hyperallergic contributor and criminology lecturer who studies the trafficking, protection, and repatriation of Asian cultural objects at Scotland’s University of Glasgow, pointed to a changing cultural climate surrounding provenance concerns.
“The recent wave of successful repatriations clearly raises a difficult question for public museums,” said Smith. “How can they stay relevant to their audience, when this audience asks critical questions about the ways in which collections are owned, displayed, taken care of, and used? In this context, all American art museums that hold cultural objects and human remains need to rethink their audience engagement and role within globalized society.” Last year, Smith and fellow Hyperallergic contributor Erin Thompson posited that a 13th-century Durga figurine in the Rubin’s collection was likely stolen. (The museum stated at the time that the object’s provenance records were “strong” and maintains that it has no outstanding repatriation claims.)
While many museums across the United States have faced repatriation pressures, the Rubin has also been plagued with low ticket sales and financial deficits for years. The institution charted a $5,879,492 net loss in 2022, the most recent time frame available in the public record. That year, the Rubin earned $290,513 from admissions, equating to around 15,290 regularly priced adult tickets sold for $19 each. In 2019, the museum laid off 22 employees — 25% of its workforce — and restricted its hours. Now, the institution is open just four days a week.
On the FAQ section of the museum’s website, the institution offers a brief “no” to the question of whether the Rubin is in “financial trouble,” elaborating that the decision to close the museum is “a result of realigning our resources to best serve our mission for the long term.”
Rubin Museum spokesperson Sandrine Millet told Hyperallergic that the institution has a “healthy financial picture” for 2023 and that it has seen a steady attendance rebound since the pandemic. She also pointed out that the Rubin has drawn additional visitors to its international projects, namely the interactive traveling Mandala Lab, an educational program that will continue beyond the museum’s closure, and the Nepal Pavilion at the 2022 Venice Biennale, which the Rubin helped orchestrate.
On the same FAQ page, the museum responded “absolutely not” to a question about whether the restructuring was due to the provenance and repatriation of its collection.
“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,” said Millet. “We remain committed to the ongoing research of the provenance or ownership history of our collection and have recently created a new staff role for provenance work.”
Smith noted that the Rubin now has an opportunity to proactively repatriate its collection and focus on supporting contemporary Himalayan artists. The museum did not indicate plans to voluntarily return objects to Nepal, although Millet stated that the Rubin is “seeking more partnerships with the region” that “build on collaborations” to date.
“I look forward to seeing how they will encourage accessibility and research, especially in communities of origin, when the collection is mostly online or scattered as part of long-term loans,” said Smith. “Such loans will presumably also benefit the museum, but I am skeptical about the ways in which this would benefit communities of origin.”