There’s the Rub

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It’s often the case that when a museum director sees a big expansion to completion he or she steps down within a year or so after the project is completed. That’s what Mimi Gates did at the Seattle Art Museum and Marc Wilson at the Nelson-Atkins in Kansas City. But things have happened a little differently at the Cleveland Museum of Art. On Saturday the Cleveland opened the first of three new wings that are part of a still incomplete multi-stage renovation and expansion designed by Rafael Viñoly. And on Sunday the news was out that after just three years on the job, the Cleveland’s director, Timothy Rub, would be leaving in the fall to succeed the late Anne d’Harnoncourt as director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The Philadelphia job was probably the most important unfilled position in the American museum world, where Rub is a leading figure. Last year when I grabbed lunch one afternoon with him and Viñoly, Rub was even being mentioned as a possible successor to Philippe de Montebello at the Met. But at lunch he dismissed that speculation. What he wanted to talk about, other than the accomplishments of Sherman Lee, his great predecessor as Cleveland director, was the expansion and how it would transform his museum.

This conversation took place before last October’s financial meltdown, but it seemed to me at the time that the project would face a few hurdles in what was already a worsening fund raising environment. The completion date has already been pushed back from 2012 to 2013. Later this year trustees will vote on whether to go forward at all with the next phase. As Steve Litt reports today in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, like most museums the Cleveland saw a steep drop in its endowment recently, from more than $800 million two years ago to about $512 million last month. Not long ago Rub and other museum staff agreed to take pay cuts this year to help balance the museum’s operating budget.

So it’s not surprising that board members of the Cleveland Museum sounded a little taken aback by Rub’s departure when their expansion still has a lot of work ahead of it. Though in the Plain Dealer, co-chairman Michael Horvitz was at pains to speak warmly of him, he admitted that “the timing is very bad.” But he added gamely: “I don’t think his departure is going to materially slow down the project.” Board president Alfred M. Rankin, Jr. told the New York Times he was surprised by the whole thing. “I haven’t known about this for very long.”

At Philadelphia Rub will still get to preside over a museum expansion, a $500 million Frank Gehry-designed project that’s expected to break ground next year. Then again, that job is also expected to take a decade to complete, so this time Rub will have to be in for the long haul.

(Correction: In the above post I say that my lunch with Rub and Viñoly took place “before last October’s financial meltdown”. But the meltdown started with the collapse of Lehman Brothers in mid-September. Checking my calendar I see I met with Rub and Vinoly on October 1, so the “worsening fund raising environment” I mention in that paragraph would already have been the much worsening.)