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My Q&A with Timothy Rub on Cleveland&#146s Deviation from Donor Intent

Timothy Rub, speaking to the press outside the entrance of the Philadelphia Museum’s Gorky retrospective

I was grateful that Timothy Rub, director of the Philadelphia Museum, was willing to talk to me at all, given my harsh criticism of the Cleveland Museum’s decision (made during his directorship there) to funnel to its expansion project up to $75 million in income from funds that donors had designated for acquisitions, not for bricks and mortar.

I began safely, by chatting about his plans for Philadelphia—increasing its operating budget to be on a par with outlays at comparable institutions, such as the major institutions in Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles; and getting his museum ready, in terms of both architectural plans and financial resources, for its own coming expansion, designed by Frank Gehry.

Through his own comments, Rub managed to give me the perfect opening for the question that I’d been afraid to ask and that I suspected he wouldn’t answer. As you will see, he pleasantly surprised me, responding cautiously but substantively.

In discussing Philadelphia’s expansion plans, Rub rhetorically asked:

How do you get an institution ready for that [a major building project], at a time when the future of the American economy is still uncertain and the capacity of any community to make capital gifts that in aggregate will support a project of this size is something that you have to look at very carefully?

With that, the following Q&A about Cleveland’s complicated financial situation was off and running. (I’m the “Q”; Rub is the “A”):

Q: Philadelphia is in a fortunate position, compared to the institution that you just left, which was in the middle of the project when the economic crisis hit. Here, at least, you have the luxury of waiting for the right moment.

A: Yes, but these are long-term projects, and no matter how carefully you plot the course, it’s going to cross times when the economy is good and when the economy is bad, and you have to figure out ways of sustaining it across time. There’s no doubt about that.

Q: I understand that what happened to the economy was almost unprecedented and no one could have foreseen it. But to get that far along [in Cleveland’s capital project] and to have that much of a shortfall—is that something that should have been guarded against, in some way?

A: I think if you look at the way Cleveland has dealt with its campaign and the capital budget, it proceeded in a very prudent way. I talked with our president and board chair before I left [and said]: “I’m going to another institution, and I’m reluctant to really speak about Cleveland unless you would want me to do so.” These are questions that I think you need to address to Cleveland at this point….

I’m in an odd position. I could map out the whole scenario for you, but I’m not sure that I should speak for Cleveland at this point. But it’s a much bigger and more interesting and complex picture than I think has been described thus far.

Q: Did you approve the decision to use the income from acquisition funds for the building project?

A: I concurred with that. This was a decision that we made together. We looked at the options for being able to continue to move the project forward at a very difficult time economically and came to the conclusion together that this needed to be done as a short-term measure….

My point to you is it’s a really interesting and very complex calculation that has to do with things as varied as bond ratings and cash flow from pledges that we currently have or that we might anticipate in the future. It has to do with bonding capacity and with calculating the cost of capital. It has to do with the institution’s willingness to take on risk in terms of future obligations. It has to do with whether you resolve to pay for something now as opposed to having the institution pay for it much later.

Q: Was slowing the project down an option, and why was that not done?

A: The museum is basically half complete. If you slow a project like that down, several things happen: You push the completion date out far in the future and until you complete the project, you will not have sufficient room to show your collection or do your work….

Cleveland took on a grand and comprehensive project and the trustees felt, when that decision was made in the earlier part of this decade [before Rub arrived] that it was important to renovate and expand the museum comprehensively. I think when it is done, it will have been worth the wait, because it will allow for Cleveland to completely rethink and re-present its collection, which before was not a possibility. How many big art museums can actually do that?

Q: What about the museum ethics question: Do you feel comfortable with taking money that was designated by donors for acquisitions?

A: There are legal means that have been in place for a long time to ask courts to determine whether or not funds that have been contributed for one purpose can be utilized on a permanent or temporary basis for another purpose. There are legal mechanisms and a significant body of law that leads to this.

Secondly, I should say that the board of the Cleveland Museum of Art is a tremendously responsible and resourceful group of people who are fiduciaries for the institution. And it’s their responsibility to make thoughtful and prudent fiscal decisions on behalf of the institution. I think the trustees discharged their responsibilities extremely well. I really do.

Q: But what about the ethics question? Is it proper to take funds that were designated for a specific purpose and apply them to a different purpose?

A: I don’t think that in normal circumstances you would want to do that, to be sure. But these are exceptional circumstances.

You already know how I feel about Cleveland’s actions. I don’t need to belabor it. Acknowledging Timothy’s forthcomingness and candor, let’s move on: In case you haven’t had enough of him yet, below is a CultureGrrl Video of Rub addressing the assembled journalists at the luncheon celebrating the opening of the current Gorky show.

It’s standard museum-director boilerplate—high praise for the exhibition and for those who organized it. But I do make it interesting near the end, by turning the camera on my tablemates—Maro Gorky, the artist’s daughter, and her pal, Lisa de Kooning, the daughter of you-know-who.

Rub begins here by talking about the show’s companion exhibition, which puts Gorky’s work in
the context of European, Russian and American modernism, by drawing on works from Philadelphia’s own rich collection:

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