Amid multi-year expansion plans with Frank Gehry and making history with Pope Francis this summer, Philadelphia Museum of Art Director and CEO Timothy Rub keeps his eyes—and his focus—on the art.
Timothy Rub, the impeccably mannered director and CEO of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is a very busy man. I’ve been given an afternoon appointment at his tastefully furnished, wood-paneled office—its decorations include three Matisse paintings, white orchid plants, and two cerulean-blue sofas next to a stately marble fireplace—in the Perelman Building to talk about art, the museum’s future, the Frank Gehry architectural renovations, upcoming blockbuster shows, even the September visit by Pope Francis. We cover a lot of ground, but his assistant pokes her head into the room as we round the one-hour marker to signal that his other commitments await.
What would make Rub keep his next appointment waiting? Jean-François Millet’s 1874 painting, Bird’s-Nesters, of course. The 63-year-old museum director, who was raised in Queens and northern New Jersey and educated at Middlebury College, New York University, Yale, and Harvard, is normally a model of measured erudition. His sentences unfurl in waves of thoughtful analysis when explaining the museum’s future renovations or its push to attract families and millennials. Yet this odd painting by Millet of a gruesome childhood memory of villagers surprising pigeons out of the forest at night to club them to death has temporarily transformed him into someone who sounds more like a passionate art history professor willing to keep everyone late for class until he’s made his point. “It has this feeling of mystery and of awe, but is also revelatory and wonderful. As someone on the verge of death, Millet would come back to that notion of how we learn through sorrow, pain, and difficult things—what are the stories we learn and what are the transcendent moments that occur through, counterintuitively, things that are almost too horrible to bear. That is the product of wisdom that only age can bring.”
It’s this conviction coupled with Rub’s experience (coming from directorships at the Cleveland Museum of Art, Cincinnati Art Museum, and Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College) that has allowed him to connect so solidly with donors, museumgoers, and other external constituencies in his six years at the helm in Philly.
With a collection that numbers nearly 230,000 items, the museum has almost outgrown its grand home atop the hill at the foot of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Rub describes architect Frank Gehry’s master plan, which will renew a facility that hasn’t been substantially renovated since its 1928 opening, as “genius.” It includes a space to be built under the East Terrace that will create 78,000 additional square feet of exhibition room. Rub is candid that the plan will not be finished any time soon. “We will need to do this in several phases and raise the funds each time to do that,” says Rub. “That’s simply a function of a plan that is comprehensive and takes care of everything from the roof down to the basement.” The cost of the next phase, called the Core Project, is estimated at approximately $150 million.
Where once world-class museums such as the Art Museum may have seemed like imposing cultural bastions catering to the educated elite, today they are determined to attract newcomers to art, and are using novel programming to do so. “Our job is to make it easier for people to come and see things, to make it possible [for them] to learn and look in the way that suits [them] best,” says Rub. “That’s been a really big sea change in terms of the way museums think about their work.”
The summertime family program, Art Splash, the museum’s extended hours on Wednesday nights (pay-what-you-wish) and the first Sunday of every month, and unexpected programs—yoga on the East Terrace, roving Shakespeare theatrical productions—have reaped the attendance rewards that make this director happy.
Even if yoga and Shakespeare aren’t enough to get you out of your air-conditioned home, the museum’s big summer exhibition, “Discovering the Impres- sionists: Paul Durand-Ruel and the New Painting,” just might. A sensation this spring at London’s National Gallery, the show makes its only American stop in Philly from June 24 to September 13. Loaded with work by Manet, Monet, Renoir, Degas, and Pissarro, the exhibition focuses on the Parisian art dealer Durand-Ruel and the impact he had on creat- ing a market for Impressionist works.
Shortly afterward comes a history-making day for Philadelphia: Pope Francis will deliver a mass Sunday, September 27, from the steps of the museum as a part of the World Meeting of Families. “What I hope,” says Rub, “is the pope might visit the museum and our painting by Jan van Eyck, Saint Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata [circa 1425–1430]. It’s a little painting, but an extraordinary one.”
Rub gazes out the window at the museum across the street. He speaks with earnest clarity about why the pope or any of us should visit his museum: “Everybody has a desire to learn from and enjoy the arts. It’s part of human nature. For so many, exploring the world of the visual arts and seeing what others have created is an extraordinary voyage that will yield rich discoveries and change them in ways they can’t even imagine.” 26th Street and Benjamin Franklin Parkway, 215-763-8100