Sunday, April 16, 2000

Art museum's new guiding light

Director Timothy Rub hopes to reach more people and 'catch up' with technology

BY Owen Findsen
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        “If you think of what makes a museum great, at the end of the day its really about the collection,” says Timothy Rub, Cincinnati Art Museum's new director.

[photo] Cincinnati Art Museum Director Timothy Rub
(Gary Landers photo)
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        “After shows come and go, as directors come and go, what remains? The collection is a resource that will continue to serve the region in the future,” he says. “It is a very precious legacy.”

        Mr. Rub surveys the stacks of papers, letters and reports that cover his desk, arranged as carefully as the squares on a checkerboard. He has been behind that desk for only three months, and he is learning all he can about the history and operation of the 119-year-old museum.

        “So far, I only have a passing knowledge of the collection,” he says. Every day he discovers something new, and he's eager to share the excitement of his discoveries.

        Taking a break from the paperwork, he leaves his office and walks rapidly through the Medieval Gallery, the Classical Gallery and the entry hall and stops in the Near Eastern Gallery. The incredible gold libation bowl of Darius the Great gleams from a glass case, but that's not what he's looking at.

        “One of the wonderful things about working in a general museum, it is always filled with the joy of discovery. I've always known the Darius bowl, but this rhyton figure cup . . .”

        He's absorbed in the details of a silver drinking cup, fifth century B.C., with a beautifully crafted kneeling bull as its base.

        “The detail is extraordinary. You can see how this influenced later art, particularly art deco. That's the kind of thing that helps us make connections between the arts of different times and places.”

        The Near Eastern Gallery, with its ancient Persian and Iranian objects, is “filled with remarkable things,” he says, turning to a small ivory figure of an Assyrian priest, from 700 B.C.

        “It's an astonishing thing. The details are exquisite. The characterization of the face is astonishing. That it should survive in such good condition for almost 3,000 years is remarkable.”

        His eye catches a group of decorated Persian ceramic bowls from the 12th and 13th centuries.

        “They're gorgeous to look at and they're full of information,” he says, examining the lateen sails of the little ships pictured on one bowl. “They're typical of the kinds of ships that sailed the Mediterranean.”

        He savors the objects, and he's eager to create ways to share his passion with museum visitors.

        “There is a lot that has to be done in terms of reinstallation and reinterpretation of the collection,” he says.

        “We have begun to rethink our approach to interpretation of the collection both in our galleries and in our educational programs. The key is to provide ways for different people with different learning styles, with different knowledge of museums of art to have access to information.”

        The museum needs to “catch up in terms of technologies like random-access guides,” he says.

        Computer terminals in galleries could “provide access in different ways for a lot of different audiences. You punch in one number and a curator speaks. With another number you might hear an artist speak about a work. You might hear the recorded words of a contemporary of the artist speaking about the times, and another number might play some music of the period.”

        Visitors would appreciate hearing Mr. Rub as he talks passionately about art and the museum's collection. Some visitors pause and listen as he looks into the case of Chinese Tang dynasty funerary figures, commenting on the flowing colored glazes on a dramatic figure of a horse.

        “Look at the way the horse's mane is combed,” he says. “You can find your way into art from so many different approaches.”

        Mr. Rub, 48, was associate director of the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., from 1987 to 1991 and director there from 1991 until the end of 1999.

        “I loved being at Dartmouth because it was a place about learning; a place that valued the arts and artistic achievement.

        “What continues to impress me about Cincinnati is that it is a place of strong and still-valued traditions. It is a city that understands how you define a sense of place, how you care for it, how you build. Cincinnati is a wonderful place to be. I'm delighted by it.”

        What kinds of exhibitions does he expect to bring here?

        “The exhibition schedules are set for three or four years down the road. That's the nature of museums. You won't see the impact of my arrival on the exhibitions for a couple of years out.”

        But he talks of possible exhibitions when he looks at the museum's African and American Indian collections.

        “The African collection is one of the oldest art museum collections in the country,” he says, pausing to examine a dark, imposing figure of a baboon, from the Ivory Coast. “Look at the bend of the legs; the heavy eyebrows that hide the eyes. The figure is full of life; strange and somehow frightening.”

        He makes a quick stop to call attention to the Greek vases and the pictures on the vases that “help you find your way into a world very different from ours,” and heads back to his office.

        There's no time to go upstairs to visit his favorite paintings, Arshile Gorky's “Virginia Landscape,” with it's fluid calligraphic line, the “wonderful late Gainsborough landscape,” the Diebenkorn, the Van Gogh, the Matisse, the Modigliani.

        “You can't find a better Modigliani than this portrait of Max Jacob.” He opens the museum catalog to a picture of Mary Cassatt's “Mother and Child.” “It's a very pretty painting, full of sentiment, and I mean that in the best sense.”

        Mr. Rub comes to Cincinnati Art Museum following five years of budget problems and staff cuts under the former director, Barbara Gibbs.

        “We should not underestimate the importance that getting the museum's financial house in order,” he says. “The work done here over the last five years was absolutely essential. We're in extremely good shape now. The budget is very strong.

        “I think we're poised to really plan confidently for the future. There's a lot of good work to be done.”

        The “most significant” project in the works is a 17,000- to 18,000-square-foot Cincinnati wing to showcase the arts produced in and around Cincinnati. Cincinnati furniture and decorative arts will be shown with the art of Cincinnati artists such as Robert Duncanson, Hiram Powers, Frank Duveneck, Henry Farny and many more. The new galleries will open in Ohio's bicentennial year, 2003.

        “One thing I don't think Cincinnati has done as persuasively as it could is to make its claim as a significant center for artistic production during much of the history of this country,” Mr. Rub says.

        “In many ways, up to present day, the museum has played an important role in encouraging and nourishing the artistic production in this city.

        “We have great stories to tell in terms of Rookwood pottery, in terms of art-carved furniture, metal work — stories that have never been told in a comprehensive way. We have the materials to tell the stories and we have the obligation to tell the stories.”

        The focus on Cincinnati art will include present day Cincinnati artists, he says.

        “The new wing raises the question, should we attend to the arts in all its aspects up to the present day? The answer is yes. The question is how do we do that?

        “Would it be to bring back an invitational or a juried show? I can't answer that yet. I haven't had enough conversations with staff, with trustees, with artists. But if the museum doesn't continue to engage practicing artists, contemporary artists, I don't think we will be doing our job well.”


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