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One of the jewels of the American museum world will shut its doors forever in October. The Rubin Museum of Art, which holds one the country’s leading collections of Himalayan art, has announced that it will become a “museum without walls.” That is, it will become a website, a curriculum in social and emotional understanding, and a series of traveling exhibitions.

Quipped one observer: “If I want to view Himalayan art (or any other such specialized collections) online there are plenty of sources to do so. It is seeing the actual objects that makes a museum a museum.”

The Rubin isn’t just another display space. This is a museum genuinely dedicated to education and outreach about Nepalese, Bhutanese, Tibetan and inner Asian cultures. More than most art museums, it takes religion seriously, and devotes a great deal of attention to the symbols in and meanings of its artworks and artifacts, the materials and technologies used to produce those objects and religious beliefs and practices.

Supplementing Its exhibitions, which are organized around specific themes, including historical era and artistic movements, are a wealth of educational programs, including workshops, lectures and seminars, led by experts in Himalayan art, culture and religion. It also hosts cultural performances, film screenings and music events that showcase the living traditions of the Himalayan region.

Perhaps most unique is the museum’s third floor Mandala Lab, “an interactive space for social, emotional and ethical learning.” Designed around the structure of a mandala, a geometric configuration of symbols often used in Buddhist and Hindu practices, the layout reflects the mandala’s divisions and pathways, guiding visitors through different experiential zones including videos, scents, sculpture and curated percussion instruments to encourage visitors to engage in mindfulness practices that promote emotional awareness and transformation. The lab includes exercises designed to help individuals identify and work through emotions such as anger, jealousy, pride and attachment.

I know no more than anyone else about why the museum has decided to close its New York City facility. After all, its endowment of well over $100 million is substantial for a museum of its size. But even before the pandemic, it was running multimillion dollar annual budget deficits. In 2019, its annual operating budget, around $16 million, far outpaced the roughly $5 to 6 million generated from its endowment.

Perhaps the writing was already on the wall when, in 2019, the museum cut its staff by 25 percent, closed for a second day each week, and reduced the number of yearly exhibitions from 5 or 6 to 2.

The museum’s post-COVID attendance never recovered. Also, the museum repatriated some of its most treasured objects. Located in a stunning building that was once the home of the fashion purveyor Barney’s in New York’s upscale Chelsea neighborhood, its property (bought for just $22 million in the late 1990s) is worth a fortune.

What especially worries me is that the Rubin did everything that I, in my courses on museums, past, present, and future, recommend that a museum do.

Reimagine traditional artforms through contemporary artists’ eyes—check. Recreate wholly immersive rooms and shrines—check. Offer hands-on art-making sessions inspired by Himalayan techniques and themes—check. Combine physical objects with multimedia exhibits—check. Stage musical performances in a dedicated space—check. Hold conversations with leading artists—check. Host soirees for younger audiences with free admission, a DJ, and cocktails—check. Have one of the city’s best museum cafes and book-and-gift shops—yes.

In addition to doing things that one expects a leading museum to do, like providing professional development workshops for teachers, sponsoring special events for families and seniors, awarding grants to support Himalayan artists and research on Himalayan art, it did much more. It offered mindfulness meditation sessions with a Lama and special viewings for those with dementia and their caregivers. As one visitor put it:

“The Rubin is [was] not just a museum. It is a rare healing sanctuary. I always left the museum feeling quietly uplifted. In other museums, you look at the art. At the Rubin, you were invited to commune with it and better yet to commune with your own deeper self.”

Like many museums, issues involving the provenance of objects beset the Rubin. There are those who feel strongly that museums should do much more to return objects that were acquired from colonized people or that were originally intended as religious objects. I agree: We should indeed be concerned about looting, smuggling and the theft of artifacts, and respectful of cultural ownership.

But I don’t think we should dismiss out of hand the role that museums like the Rubin have played in preserving works that might otherwise have been damaged in war, civil conflicts, or natural disasters. Nor should we forget that this country has a very large number of Buddhists—about 1.2 million—with perhaps a third residing in the New York City area.

In addition, the Rubin helped fund the Itumbaha Museum in Kathmandu, though this also provoked outcries of “whitewashing” from protesters in Nepal who brandished signs that read “Say No to Cultural Invasion” and “Rubin We Want Our Gods Back.”

Not everyone has agreed with the Rubin’s decision to emphasize New Age “mindfulness” and self-actualization. But I think most would agree that no other museum in New York City has done more to examine “the contexts, histories, connections, and significance of the objects on display.”

New York City has lost a number of prized cultural institutions in recent years, from the New York City Opera, where many of this country’s leading singers got their start, to the Dahesh Museum, which featured late 19th-century paintings, the Museum of Biblical Art, and the Forbes and IBM galleries. The American Folk Art Museum didn’t close, but it did lose its stunning building on 53rd Street, and was reduced to cramped quarters near Lincoln Center. In the words of one observer: It’s a “sad echo of its former self. It still exists in name but not in substance.”

Schumpeter labeled capitalist flux “creative destruction.” Here we see the inverse: the destruction of creativity. Just as small colleges are threatened, the same is true for small, patron-funded museums.

As best I can tell, the Rubin did everything right. It eschewed elitism. It engaged with local communities. Its marketing and outreach strategies targeted diverse and younger audiences. It integrated art with technology. It connected its objects with contemporary issues. Its exhibits were highly interactive, immersive and Instagrammable.

It wasn’t enough, for the sad fact is that interest in the arts in this country is dwindling. According to the National Endowment for the Arts, in 2017, 23.7 percent of American adults visited a museum or gallery. In 2022, the figure was 17.7 percent.

Is there anything that colleges can and should do to rekindle interest and engagement in the arts? Yes. The key is to interweave the visual and performing arts into the interpretive disciplines, not just the humanities, but the “soft” social sciences, especially anthropology, psychology, sociology and the various studies programs.

Thus, history classes should make greater use of art as historical evidence. Artworks can serve as primary sources to understand historical contexts, societal values, and cultural movements. Historical dramas and films can help students visualize historical events and figures, as long as they follow up with discussions about historical accuracy and artistic interpretation. Simulations, such as the Reacting to the Past role-playing games, allow students to actively engage with history through performance.

Literature departments, too, might do more to integrate film and theater adaptations of literary works to explore how different mediums interpret and present the same narrative. I’ve had some success asking students to create their own performance-based adaptations of literary texts. Also, consider organizing dramatic readings and performances of plays and poetry to bring the texts to life and explore their performative dimensions.

In addition to attaching greater stress on the philosophy of art, aesthetics, and the role of art in the human experience, philosophy departments might do more to use the visual arts to discuss and interpret philosophical themes, such as existentialism in modern art or ethics in Renaissance paintings. Instructors might consider incorporating plays and films that explore philosophical questions, such as the works of Sartre or Beckett, and analyzing their philosophical content. Or ask students to create visual or performance pieces that express philosophical ideas, encouraging them to think creatively about philosophical concepts.

Anthropologists, too, can significantly enrich their classes by drawing upon the visual and performing arts. This approach can help students grasp complex cultural concepts, appreciate the diversity of human experiences, and engage more deeply with the material.

Use ethnographic films and documentaries to illustrate cultural practices, rituals and daily life in different societies. Then have students analyze these films, focusing on how they portray cultural practices, the filmmakers’ perspectives, and the ethical implications of representation. Or assign students to create photo essays that document cultural events, rituals or aspects of daily life. Ask the students to use historical and contemporary photographs to discuss cultural practices, social norms and changes over time. Study artifacts and artworks from different cultures to understand their cultural significance, production methods and social roles.

Consider inviting practitioners of traditional dances to conduct workshops to provide insight into the embodied knowledge and cultural significance of dance and dances’ cultural context, symbolism and social functions. Study plays and performances and social rituals documented on film from different cultures to explore themes of identity, power and social structure, and discuss how these performances reflect and critique cultural norms. Also, analyze traditional music and songs to understand their cultural significance, social roles and the transmission of oral traditions.

Integrating visual and performing arts into psychology can significantly enhance learning by providing tangible and accessible examples of theoretical concepts and engaging students in interactive and immersive ways.

Many feature films offer opportunities to explore psychological concepts, consider A Beautiful Mind as a starting point for discussions of schizophrenia, or Inside Out as a way to bring the concepts of emotions and memory to life. Or illustrate principles of perception using the visual arts, such as optical illusions and Gestalt theories, and analyze artworks to show how artists use these principles to create specific effects.

Examine how the brain processes visual art, linking it to topics in cognitive neuroscience and the psychology of aesthetics. Explore the psychological impact of music on mood and behavior. Analyze how performing arts, like theater and dance, convey and evoke emotions, and discuss the psychological mechanisms behind these effects. You might also introduce students to art therapy methods and their application in treating psychological disorders.

In sociology courses, it might make sense to explore cultural representations of race, gender and class through art. You might also analyze how different artworks reflect and critique social issues and portray societal and family dynamics. Theater, in particular, can serve as a social mirror that reveals aspects of social norms and social conflicts. Consider using dramaturgy to explore social roles, identities and group dynamics.

You might also use photographs as a tool for ethnographic analysis of social environments and behaviors, or study the role of music in social movements and political protests and how music reflects and shapes cultural identity and social cohesion within different communities.

There are other ways to infuse the arts across the curriculum. Interdisciplinary and team-taught courses that bring together art, history, literature, philosophy, psychology and sociology are well-suited to exploring topics like art and revolution or representations of the self, ethics and aesthetics.

In my experience, instructors could do much more to leverage on-campus resources, including art galleries and theaters, to expose students to art and performance. But why not make greater use of student talent in the arts. Even relatively modest stipends might be sufficient to support student actors and musicians who could complement coursework and show how the arts can illuminate and illustrate a host of humanistic issues.

If we want to ignite a lifelong passion for the arts, colleges must step up to the plate. For students who currently receive little arts education in K-12 schools, cultivating artistic appreciation of the arts must start on a college campus—or it will never start at all.

College should lay a foundation for lasting engagement with the arts. So, unlock the world of art in your own classroom. Nurture the next generation of arts lovers. Only by planting these seeds in college can we hope to see them germinate later in life.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and the author, most recently, of The Learning-Centered University: Making College a More Developmental, Transformational, and Equitable Experience.

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