Wealthy art collectors often donate or loan their treasures to museums. Rarely, though, do they create whole new museums to showcase their collections. Yet that is just what Shelley and Donald Rubin have done.
This Oct. 2, the doors opened to The Rubin Museum of Art on New York City's West 17th Street. Inside the five-story building, is what's said to be one of the world's largest collections of Himalayan art — most of it donated by the Rubins. The RMA also is showing artwork that's been loaned by The Metropolitan Museum, The American Museum of Natural History and the Asia Society, among others.
The couple (whose fortune comes from founding the New York-based MultiPlan Inc., a nationwide independent network of healthcare providers) bought a building in 1996 that had been well-known for having housed the Barney's store, in a bankruptcy auction, for $22 million. During the next six years, they donated to the RMA the building and more than 1,200 paintings, sculptures and textiles that had taken them 25 years to collect. They also paid $65 million to renovate the 70,000-square-foot building, and to provide working capital for the RMA.
The big question is, of course, why did the Rubins create a museum and why don't other major collectors do the same? Donald Rubin says that economics was not his motivation.
It couldn't have been, agrees charitable giving expert David T. Leibell of Cummings & Lockwood LLC in Stamford, Conn.
Total cost and tax write off for the Rubins? They're not saying, naturally. But the most important tax benefit of the 501(c)(3) trust they created to operate the museum is that it creates the ability to get a full, fair market value deduction for any donated art, and significant tax benefits on other taxable income. If the Rubins had donated the art to another museum, the tax benefits would be lower.
But “while the tax benefits are significant,” notes Leibell, the couple “will have to keep personally pumping money to keep it alive, until the museum [which has 60-plus employees] manages to get public funding to be considered for a public charity status.” The private foundation will have to raise as little as 10 percent of total running costs, in public funding, to be considered for public charity status. Certainly, says Leibell, the museum's entry fee ($7 for general admission and $5 for students, seniors and neighbors), won't help defray costs much.
Donald Rubin says he was driven by a desire “to share the beauty, dynamism and the serenity of the spiritual images with others.” He says he felt an inexplicable connection with the Himalaya's “intricately detailed art that satisfies one's spiritual, emotional and educational needs and symbolizes man's everyday struggle with his inner demons.”
Why not simply give his treasures to an already established museum? “If there was a museum willing to show our entire collection, instead of keeping it in their basement, wrapped in bubble wrap,” Rubin says, “we might have considered donating to them.” Also, admits Rubin, he was motivated by “a combination of wanting to share our art, managing to still maintain control over the collection and be actively involved in the process itself.”
The Rubins now co-chair the board of the RMA trust, which operates the museum. Other board members include William Lewis, former president of The Metropolitan Museum of Art for 13 years and Jonathan Rose, who's served the boards of Lincoln Center and the American Museum of Natural History. None of the Rubins' family members are on the board or actively involved with the RMA, although the Rubins did give a few pieces of their collection to relatives who wanted to display them in their homes.
Another motivator: A long-term vision. If art collectors express themselves through the choices they make in creating a collection, surely the ultimate expression is an entire museum devoted to their vision. Some of the most famous museums in the world started off as private museums, including the Smithsonian, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the Guggenheim and of course the Whitney. But according to art experts, the RMA is probably the first museum in the Western world dedicated entirely to Himalayan art.
There are many reasons why collectors won't follow the Rubins' and Whitneys' lead: time, money, and legal hassles topping the list. But Rubin says these negatives shouldn't stop anyone: “It wasn't always easy, but by setting high standards of aesthetic beauty and quality, garnering an excellent team of experts and having a vision, it can be done and the RMA is an excellent case study.”