- Tim McHenry
- "I am in the bardo of middle age."
- Grew-up abroad; now lives in "Dry-Cleaning City aka Kips Bay aka the nowhere land between Murray Hill and Gramercy Park."
- Director of Programming, Rubin Museum of Art
Where’d you grow up and get your plummy accent?
Some say I never have, but ostensibly atop a snow-capped country called Switzerland. Plums in the language of the country of my birth are called Zwetschge. Try that with an accent.
As program director at the Rubin Museum, how much coordination do you have with other departments -- from the curators to the education program?
The way you put it sounds like I should be organizing rousing games of quoits on deck. There is a little of that in what I do, which is essential to devise and coordinate most of the live happenings in the Museum. We have had 311 of them since we opened.
The RMA’s space went from Barneys to Buddha. Did you need to conduct any special ceremonies to banish any ghosts? Since the original building was entirely refashioned into something much more serene, why choose to retain the steely glass staircase?
Well, as Andy [Warhol] is reputed to have said, “Sooner or later every department store becomes a museum and every museum a department store.” There is no discomfort in straddling both. The staircase is central to the structure of the building but also to the concept of the way the art is perceived.
One of the startling discoveries for me, as I am in charge of the film programs here, was to come across the old discarded footage from Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon some months after we opened. The cut scene is the funeral procession after the High Lama’s death. Torch bearers enter the great Frank Lloyd Wright-style lamasery. The lights from the faggots flicker reflected in the mirrored floor of the great hall. The great procession, including long-horn blowers, monks and other officials of Shangri-La, crosses the hall and continues up a staircase. Giant shadows are thrown up against the wall as they proceed, single file up step after step. The camera then closes in and angles up and you realize that the caravan of mourning is climbing a spiral staircase. Only the tips of the torches can be seen curling up higher and higher around the ever-ascending banister. Not only is the procession mounting the staircase in a clockwise direction – the Buddhist circumambulation of sacred sites does the same -- but that the spiral staircase is not circular but elliptical, almost exactly the shape of that of the former Barneys women’s store designed by Richard Blinder and Andree Putman in 1985. There is no way that they would have known of this abandoned footage, but clearly, some sort of karma was at work here.
As a new venue, how challenging has it been drumming up awareness? You’re not in Chelsea’s gallery district, nor on Museum Mile -- has your location been a help or a hindrance?
Maybe not Museum Mile, but an extension of Ladies Mile. The creed of real estate is location, location, location. As our position on the corner of Seventh Avenue and 17th Street is so resolutely Chelsea, we have taken advantage of that in the programs by instituting a series called "The Chelsea Connection." I wanted to show that we could be a museum of Himalayan art as well as a place where the neighborhood could be celebrated. So I invited some of our neighbors to come to the museum to do something special that they hadn’t done elsewhere.
The first to agree was philosopher Peter Singer who engaged writer Lance Morrow on the issue of evil; next were the photographers Robert Polidori who unveiled his never-before published portfolio of the Buddha caves of Sri Lanka; nighttime photographer Patrick McMullan who conducted a public workshop for the first time in his life; Todd Eberle was also slated to come and talk about the North Indian city of Chandigarh and capturing modernism in photographs; Stephen Sebring gave us a sneak preview of his documentary on Patti Smith; Jazz legend Roswell Rudd came and jammed with some Buryat throat-singers; Andrew Sterman premiered some new jazz pieces; Rosanne Cash became the museum’s resident female Buddha by doing six tailor-made acoustic performances in as many months, and the list goes on. It is an artistically rich community. It has been a jamboree
Does the museum become harder to sell to the public because it houses such a specific collection of art -- not just Asian, but Himalayan?
There are pros and cons. If we could be described rather generically as an Asian art museum, it would be hard to claim special attention from existing institutions that already have a sizeable and active exhibition policy, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art or The Asia Society. The advantage of showing art from the Himalayas is that nobody else does to the extent and range that we do. I suppose you could call it a niche market. But it is a big niche. Himalayan art is not to be equated with Tibetan art. Nor is it exclusively Buddhist. The Himalayan style is evident as far north as Tuva in Siberia and magnificent examples can be found on the Pacific coast of China. So RMA does cover a large portion of east and south Asia.
This museum has appealed to people who like to discover something new and has proven to be a bit of an eye-opener to most. And then in come the populists like me who look at the current exhibition of "Handprints and Footprints in Buddhist Art" and say, why don’t we have our own DIY version on the street outside? So on Thursdays thru Sundays in the afternoons you will pass by the museum and be invited to place your own handprints and footprints in “the sands of time” -- in a sort of Grauman's Chinese Theater wet-sand pavement. The impressions are photographed and mounted on the rmanyc.org calendar page [click on any program link titled "Footprints in the Sands of Time -- be part of a Digital Museum exhibit] as an eternal vs ephemeral visitors page. This art, and the concepts inherent in them lend themselves so wonderfully to interaction.
Not being familiar with the art, we were delighted by the friendly tone of the display cards, “let your eyes wander and catch the twinkle of mica chips.” Is this some conscious effort to be more embracing and instructing?
Just note the Sherlock Holmes touch with the supply of magnifying glasses on each gallery floor. That should answer that one.
What was your own previous knowledge of Himalayan art before joining the staff?
Well, let’s put it this way: I read Heinrich Harrer’s “Seven Years in Tibet” in a single sitting when I was 13. That was it until I got the call to join the Museum in 2003.
One of the RMA’s assets is the flexible theater. Was it the constraints of square footage that required it to be a multi-function space?
The theater has a flat auditorium floor, not a raked one. One of the great drawbacks to construction in Chelsea is the fact that this very flat part of Manhattan was, originally, marshland. There are hundreds of little rivers running underground. It proved too costly to dig down to create a raked theater and divert all these courses. But I took advantage of the flat floor by instituting a cabaret-style approach to talks and films, which we wouldn’t have been able to do if the floor were raked and the theater seating anchored in place. We can arrange the seating any which way. As a result one of the most agreeable programs is the "Cabaret Cinema." It always seemed so uncivilized to go to movies and find that all one could eat and drink was unpalatably bad for you. So every Saturday night at 7 you can come to RMA and for just $12 base charge for your food and drink (and I mean real drinks like lychee martinis and the like) you can see a film for free AND gain admission to the Museum’s galleries for free. It is a great deal, actually.
The museum is open until 9 on Thursdays and Fridays. What advantage do those late hours provide?
We always have programs in the theater on Thursdays and Fridays, but there are also thematic tours of the galleries that visitors can take advantage of. Oh, and there is a 2-for-1 cocktail deal at the bar on Fridays. And you don’t have to visit the galleries to take advantage of that.
There’s an incredible amount of film programming -- next month ranges from Jurassic Park to Princess Mononoke in conjunction with the "Eternal Presence" exhibit. How out of the box do you get when select the schedule?
I think more than a few eyebrows were raised when we showed Caddyshack as part of our "Hollywood in the Himalayas" film series. But it was "Cabaret Cinema," and we certainly got a drinking crowd.
Buddhism is all about thinking out of the box. My job is primarily to allow people to draw contemporary associations from the art and recognize its relevance to who we are now. "Cabaret Cinema" has already got its hardcore of regulars. There is a cinema quiz every time, and the winners get to come back the next week without having to pay the bar minimum of $12. But because the films are deliberately diverse – Abbott and Costello one week; Le Retour de Martin Guerre the next -- the attendance varies quite considerably. Sometimes I will pair a feature film with a documentary like we did [Tara's Daughters] with The Inn of the Sixth Happiness and that combination sold out.
The slogan of the series is “where movies and martinis mix.” We usually have a guest to introduce the film: Lowell Dingus, the renowned paleontologist is bringing in some velociraptor fossils by means of introduction to Jurassic Park on July 2; New Yorker dance critic and Chelsea resident Joan Acocella is introducing The Red Shoes on July 16; and Jane Lahr, Bert “Cowardly Lion” Lahr’s daughter is coming to talk about The Wizard of Oz on August 13, which happens to be Bert Lahr’s birthday.
The RMA launched last fall with an ambitious 100 programs in 100 days that included outreach to local schools as well as the participation of guests like Rosanne Cash. Has it been difficult to get people to come onboard and participate in the programming?
Persuading an artist like Rosanne Cash to perform acoustically, without any amplification whatsoever took some wooing, but she is so open to experiment and such a consummate professional that once she bought into the idea I could not have found a stronger advocate for the pure bliss of not having to do four-hour sound checks! Most artists have embraced the concept of this Museum so readily that it has not been too difficult. The enemy is really scheduling more than anything else.
Last spring, protesters gathered at opening of the traveling exhibit "Tibet, Treasures from the Roof of the World.” What stance (if any) does the museum take on the current situation between China and Tibet?
It may sound a little facile to say that “art knows no boundaries.” It is only true in the sense that most art can be appreciated on some level without recourse to language and background culture. But the one thing art can do as a medium is foster dialogue, and talking keeps the door ajar for improvement of relations. Maybe the museum can serve as a cultural meeting ground at that level. On principle I strongly believe in independence of choice of content. It was ironic that while the Students for Free Tibet were outside protesting an exhibition that exemplified for them the Chinese government’s appropriation of Tibetan culture, one of the leaders of that organization was inside the Museum introducing that evening’s Cabaret Cinema presentation of Paul Wagner’s contentious film Windhorse.
Given your proximity to the art, do you feel more serenity?
Being creative and active is what makes me happy.
Ten things to know about Tim:
What's the best thing you've ever purchased/salvaged off the street?
The perfect sized Starbucks coffee cup within arm’s reach when I had forgotten to bring a plastic bag with me to pick up my Collie’s gutter offerings.
Which city establishment sees more of your paycheck than you do?
I try not to think about that.
Gotham Mad Lib: When the ______ (noun) make me feel like ______ (adverb), I like to ______ (verb). (Strict adherence to "Madlib" rules is not required.)
When the ubiquitous summer “streetfairs” make me feel like overturning the tables of tube socks like Christ with the moneylenders, I like to take the subway instead.
Personality Problem Solving: Would you consider your personality more hysterical or more obsessive, and have you changed since living in New York; has "New York" become a part of you?
Since living in New York I have also formed a relationship, and that has provided a few solutions. So yes, you can say that a New Yorker is part of me.
NYC Confessional : Do you have a local guilty pleasure?
The number of reflexology parlors I indulge in.
When you just need to get away from it all, where is your favorite place in NYC to be alone, relish in solitude and find your earthly happiness? (We promise not to intrude.)
I don’t need NYC for that.
Assuming that you're generally respectful of your fellow citizens, was there ever a time when you had to absolutely unleash your inner asshole to get satisfaction?
Yes, when accused by a plainclothes police officer of jumping the turnstiles. It didn’t do me any good.
Describe that low-low moment when you thought you just might have to leave NYC for good.
When I thought I would never get a green card. But I did, and now I am deemed an "extraordinary alien."
Besides more square footage, what luxury would you most like to have in your apartment?
A balcony. The European touch.
There are 8 Million stories in The Naked City. Tell us one, but try to keep it to a New York Minute.
This one’s about synchronicity. In New York you see what you think you see. Vanessa Williams had opened in a revival of Sondheim’s Into the Woods on Broadway. While her transformation from gnarled witch into bodacious black beauty was convincing, she unfortunately didn’t command the vocal range for the part, so this witch didn’t quite fly.
The next morning I was making for the subway and passing through Curry Hill. Streetwalkers make a seasonal appearance here. It was the tall “blonde” but otherwise black temptress in white latex boots mounted on platform heels that attracted my attention. While her boots were cut off at the knee, her jeans were cut off high up on the thigh. Scrutinizing a New York prostitute while striding past cannot take a New York minute, and in the fleeting seconds that I had, I noticed delicately filigreed stenciling poke out from between the frayed strands of her jean shorts. It was a purple tattoo made maroon against her dark smooth skin. In gothic lettering it read, "Witch." Ding dong.
The Rubin Museum of Art is located at 150 W. 17th Street at 7th Avenue. The museum is closed on Mondays, but otherwise opens daily at 11 AM with different closing times throughout the week. Admission is $7 for adults, $5 for seniors, students and artists (with ID), and $5 for residents of 10011 and 10001 zip codes (with ID). Children under 12 get in for free. For more information, call 212/620-5000 or visit the website at www.rmanyc.org. And don't forget to go to "Cabaret Cinema" every Saturday at 7 PM ($12), "Where movies and martinis meet!"
-- Interview by Lily Oei and Aaron Dobbs
-- Photograph by Liz Brown