Cultural institutions are very important to me, and are one major way I’ve learned to cultivate myself and my exposure to the world around me. I’ve grown as an artist, arts administrator, educator, and professional because of my own experiences visiting and working in cultural institutions. My love and admiration for cultural institutions came naturally to me as a young child when my mother would often take me to The Cleveland Museum of Art, or the Museum of Natural History back in my hometown. I never dreamed that I’d work in museums, let alone spend some very exciting times in them. One of my most recent cultural adventures included an overnight stay with one of the most impressive museum collections I’ve ever experienced: the amazing Himalayan and Tibetan art at The Rubin Museum.
In 2008, after my year-long internship at the Brooklyn Museum was complete, I was in-between full-time jobs and working at multiple institutions, The Rubin Museum included. I worked as Theater Host of their budding programming being held in a newly modeled auditorium space called “K2 Lounge”. There were jazz performances, movie nights, and delicious drinks and food being served from their upstairs cafe late into the evenings. I greeted performers and speakers, helping them backstage as they prepared to present, and soaked up all I could from local and international artists alike. The museum holds ancient artifacts in a modern, sophisticated, urban landscape. A visit comes with plenty of cool perks and activities for anyone who dares a new adventure into the complex artistic and cultural history being housed in what used to be a high end department store in Chelsea. I enjoyed working the late evening programming as it was common during my programming internship at the Brooklyn Museum. I also enjoyed working weekend educational art-making programs with children just as much. All those years ago, while I was still a recent college grad and had only been in New York City for a year, I never would have guessed I’d be back at The Rubin Museum, this time to spend the night under a hand-selected piece of art to inform my dreams. The process was an interesting one, and it brought me full circle to a place I had both worked and marveled at years before.
During my internship at the Brooklyn Museum, we had visited The Rubin Museum on one of our many excursions to cultural institutions throughout the city. My first visit to The Rubin opened my eyes to the vast world of Tibetan and Himalayan art, and I was completely in awe of such a deeply complex cultural and religious history surrounding the imagery in the objects. With a mentor whose family is Indian, Sri Lankan, and Hindu, my exposure to Eastern religions had already begun some time beforehand, but my respect and appreciation only continued to grow. That first trip to The Rubin was transformative; it was one of the first times I had ever had a visceral and emotional reaction to fine art. I wept in front of an intricate painting depicting a Tibetan interpretation of Buddha. After that experience, I had an even more profound respect for artwork and what it means to have an artistic practice. Oftentimes, we think of art as separate from culture and religion. Sometimes we treat art as just a practice of an artist, an exercise in creativity that we participate in to pass the time, or a way to create something of little value. When my partner saw the advertisement for the Dream Over at The Rubin Museum this past May, I immediately bought my ticket and knew I wanted to be a part of such an event.
Sleepovers in museums are fairly new. New York city has a variety of museums that offer these sorts of programs for a relatively affordable price (my ticket was less than $150 dollars). When I went to see the Sherlock Holmes exhibition at The Museum of London, I learned that if I’d researched a little sooner and traveled a week later, I’d be able to stay overnight in the museum to hear mystery stories, eat a fancy dinner, and learn about the master detective I’ve come to enjoy. Once the opportunity arose again, I had to seize the day.
My partner and I had a hasty dinner in our neighborhood before he helped me carry my bags on the train to the museum. He dropped me at the museum entrance with a kiss, and I quickly signed in to change into my pajamas. I remember some sad woman commenting that she wishes she’d brought a matching sheet set as I did. I thought to myself how lucky I was that I didn’t feel my purpose there was to show off my sheets. Needless to say, there was a lot of privilege present. Consequently, I insisted on talking about being black and looking for new ways to find peace amidst the current social and cultural climate in America. My partner always reminds me that the truth shall set you free, and I made the experience as real as I could, despite being there to access some deeper meaning from my dreams. During the evening discussion, right before the midnight snack and after the camp-circle group-floor share, I listened to a discussion between a white psychiatrist and a Tibetan Khenpo, who insisted that Budhissim is not a religion for poor people. The complexity of this great religious leader’s comments alone is enough to write a research paper, but I needed to hear his words, in that place, at that time. I honored the fact that I was in the room, which was almost devoid of people of color.
I guess I shouldn’t have been so surprised to be paired with the deity of wisdom, Bodhisattva Manjushri. After losing my mother, facing unfathomable adversity, and accomplishing a great deal in such a short time, I’ve been searching for some wisdom that can ultimately bring me peace in my life and spirit. The questionnaire I had to fill out when I signed up for the event asked what the three most important times in my life were, and I included my graduation from college and my mother’s death in the list. Whoever curated my art piece was truly an emotionally intelligent human.
After a fantastical, softly whispered bedtime story, I tried to fall asleep under Manjushri. My dream was a frustrating one about asking a cyber friend I admire to be a mentor, her being too busy and saying no, and me needing to figure out my life (hahaha, sigh). Beyond my dream, my real lesson was my being uncomfortably cold in the galleries, not having brought a warm enough blanket. Even after putting on all my clothes on top of my pajamas, I kicked myself for not following my first inclination to bring something warm to cover up in. My experience would have undoubtedly been more comfortable if I had, but the hard learned lesson is usually an important one. My overall appreciation for the night was finding comfort in my participation, without it needing to be mind-blowing. I was thankful for the kindness and openness of most of the guests and staff, and the “I See You” moment I had with a young black woman named Charlie who took time to talk to me, and made my stay an empowering one.
I love The Rubin Museum, and truly hope they continue to keep this successful concept as a mainstay in their arsenal of cultural programs. I will continue to visit, talk about my encounters there, and cultivate my growing respect and appreciation for Tibetan and Himalayan art and culture. I will bring friends, family, and loved ones to share in an enriching environment filled with more art than can be experienced in a single visit. In this picture from 2013, my partner and I are posing in the Allegory & Illusion: Early Portrait Photography from South Asia exhibition. The Rubin Museum is a magnificent place, and I’m grateful to know it exists.
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