Donald Rubin on Philanthropy

Question: What guides your philanthropy?

Rubin:    We try to… for the big projects initiate most of them ourselves, but we do give a lot of what we did before the crash, I don’t know what’s going to happen after the market went down, and I’m sure you have looked at our website, the foundation website to see what we’re doing.  One of them another website we did years ago and funded it and spun it off to the group that was working on it is laborarts.org.  My father was a very important labor leader in New York, Jay Rubin, and he founded the Hotel Workers Union.  And one of the things we do with the hotel union for many years is every year we have a writing contest for the children of the hotel workers, and the union does a thee-page, full page write-up with pictures of the award ceremony where on there with all these kids almost all from Asia or Russia, but not too many Russians, but few years ago there were a lot of Russian kids.  And all of these kids are immigrants to America and were all going to Bronx Science and studies in the best schools in the city.  And the union then does this newspaper, you know, and it’s very exciting to do that.  We do writing contest for the American Civil Liberties Union with the New York Chapter.  I think there are four or five chapters.  And it started out on looking at First Amendment Rights and they’ve done a contest on the Rockefeller Drug Laws and it’s to get these youngsters involved in thinking about it and writing about these very big issues.  My wife is on the board of Human Rights Watch.  I don’t know if you saw that on the web.  She’s on the board of Human Rights Watch and Channel 13.  So, we our interest range in a lot of human rights, a lot of issues on poverty and education.  It’s not a big foundation.  It’s not a humongous foundation, but you can give modest grants and do great things with them.

Question: What does Obama’s presidency mean for philanthropy?

Rubin:    We are very optimistic, but I think it’s going to take a long time.  I mean, the economy and the public services is close to being in a cesspool and it’s going to be very hard to clean that cesspool out and we all have to take a metaphoric shower and scrub ourselves and just move on and build a good healthcare and education system and a great economic system.  And I think it’s going to take somewhere between 5 and 12 years to right all the destruction that we’ve had.

Question: How will the recession affect philanthropy moving forward?

Rubin:    It’s going to be a very difficult thing.  First of all, Shelley and I are at the age that the first priority is us surviving, because without us surviving there will be no foundation.  And so, that’s a very important thing.  It’s very, very hard with all the endowments for non-profits that have been basically partially destroyed by the economy and the corruption in the financial system to get on the feet again.  And it’s like to us it’s going to be like starting over again where we were 5 or 10 years ago, you know, to get the money back to be able to donate it, to say yes rather than no and I’m a kind of person who likes to say yes to anything I believe in and it’s very hard for me to say no.  I don’t… one of the ways that the museum survived and went is my whole philosophy is getting around the word no.  I never take no for an answer.  And when we bought the building over 10 years ago, the [Bonny Barney’s] Store, and I was driving down from my office, which we could see from, our old office which we could see from your window across 17th Street, there was a big sign saying “bankruptcy auction” and we were looking for space for the collection and thinking little more modest terms and it took me two weeks.  It was the [Bonny Barney’s] Store was closed.  It was going in auction.  It was probably going to be bought by a real estate [mogul] who would turn it, tear it down and may put up condos.  And I went into… it took me two weeks to get in and I took the elevator to the top floor where it has a beautiful marble staircase and a great skylight and the skylight was full of dirt from the outside you could hardly see through it and one of the workers must have written an obscenity on it.  So, that was my first, my first… and I would put it in now, you’ll probably edit it out, but I looked up and it said “Fuck You” that was my first introduction at the building.  And there were broken display cases and racks and the place was filthy and cold and unattractive.  And I walked down two flights of stairs and I knew this was it.  When you fall in love with somebody, you know it instantaneously.  You don’t have to, you know what’s right and what’s wrong, and on an emotional level mostly it works, and I knew that I was going to buy the building.  And Mitch [Roth] who now works for us was the only staff person that was working for [Bonny Barney’s] at that time and I said Mitch, “I'm going to buy this building.”  And he said, “You’re crazy.”  He says, “I’ve shown this to dozens of real estate people and they are going to tear it down and make condos.”  And I said, “The only approval I need is to have my wife come, and if she says yes, we’re in good shape.”  So, it took two more weeks for her to come down and she was a little more thoughtful than I am and little more cautious than I am and she got to the bottom, we both walked down to the bottom of the store.  I didn’t say one thing because if I try to lobby it, it would have been no, and she looked at me and put a two thumbs up and said, “Let’s go for it.”  And we didn’t know what we were doing.  We never build out a building, we never did, we never had faced this kind of problems, you know, construction problems and all these other kind of problems.  But I figured that we were intelligent enough that we would figure it out along the way.  And the whole trick of it is not taking no for an answer.  Who are you, what experience do you have, you’ve got to hire somebody that knows better, you know.  And this is a great… you’re taking a great risk and we wouldn’t take it, we would recommend against it and I said we’ll figure it out, we’ll figure it out.  I had a grandiose fantasy that I could do it in 2 or 2 ½ years because I don’t like to work slowly.  I’d like to get up, you know, Star Trek is my guide.  I’d like to get up to Warp 5 to 6.  I know I can getting up to warp 9 is mythical but Warp 5 to 6, but the reality is it takes an architect two years to drew up the plans and do the engineering and the air-conditioning and this and that, you know, it’s unbelievably hard.  But we made it happened and we do great shows, we get rave reviews almost all the time and people love it and I love to have the museum to go to everyday and it gives me a lot of pleasure to be able to come up with ideas for shows and I’m totally directly involved.  And we have Tim McHenry who does a whole lot of theater programs and, you know, we have music Friday nights and every kind of movies and we have a fairly big following.

Question: What are the Rubin Foundation’s future initiatives?

Rubin:    Some foundation projects that we are doing.  Another website that we have been working on and we’ve done it out of our office for the last two years and now it’s going to be separated and another organization is going to take it over, but we developed it mostly with a few other people is the website called the Arts of the Islamic World.  And it was our feeling that if people appreciated in and, you know, it’s not only Muslims, it’s Christians [IB].  It’s the whole religion that comes out of, you know, the Muslim community.  If people had more pride in their own background and culture, I thought they would be more accepting of other people and less violent.  So that website is done, and we are having the other website that we set up, we go to the museum and asking permission to bring it.  So in that website, the Brooklyn Museum, the Aga Khan Foundation and a number of other museums have dipped their toes and have given us their words.  But there are a lot of other, it’s been very, very hard to… It’s not cooperation to deal with bureaucracies, and a museum is a bureaucracy and I think arts even is to some extent, but I viewed myself all my life as a bureaucracy buster ‘cause I want to go around, over and under any bureaucracy.  My goal is to make things happen and not just to sit on somebody’s desk and get the whole bunch of rules, and I sometimes get myself in trouble for doing that.  The other project that we’re doing which we’re very proud of is a building manual that we have developed with the architect who offices right across the street, Stephen [Forneris].  A building manual on how to build a home in the Third World – Ecuador, South America or Middle East that’s earthquake resistant.  It’s possible to build a building that’s earthquake resistant for approximately the same money.  This is mostly one storey, maybe two-storey buildings.  It would have been great in China for the schools and it doesn’t cost more money.  It’s just building technique.  And we spent two years, Steven Stephen mostly doing the work under my encouragement and support and financing, which wasn’t too much as amazing how much we’ve accomplished with very little.  We have a very large, big manual that is going to be published by the International Code Council.  And my condition for putting this thing and Stephen’s condition for putting this forward was that it had to be made available free and we are going to put it on the website free.  So all these techniques which not something proprietary and nothing that we’re going to make money on, nothing he is going to be able to build extra for as an architect.  Just make it available, put it in the public sector where it should be, and if they used these techniques when they, you know, in Turkey or Iran or in China, probably 80% or 90% of the damage and most of the deaths would have been prevented.  So that’s one of our foundation’s stellar projects and one that I am, you know, is the top head for dozen projects we funded over the years. 

Question: What is Circopedia?

Rubin:    It’s anything about circus history, circus acts, circus memorabilia.  You are going to go home tonight or get on it now.  And year from now, we’ll probably be triple in size.  And what it is it’s a visual library of the circus and they are going to other circuses for them to give their acts.  When if you are a circus performing [high and why] a person or a juggler or a clown, it dies with you.  When you’re dead or you retire, there might be some photographs of it and a lot of those photographs are lost.  Years and years ago, one of the TV stations had a half hour, I think, it was once a month or once a week circus, you know, on circus and they probably did 30 or 40, half hour, they can’t find them.  There’s no record.  The TV station doesn’t have it.  There’s no record.  This was something that’s ephemeral, you know, it’s impermanent.  As the Tibetan Monks talk about, this is impermanence.  And for the web is to make it permanent and the same with the manuscripts and the art is to make it permanent, not just let it disappear and be burnt or destroyed, but to put it out to the public in a way that creates permanence to it.

Donald Rubin elucidates his gift-giving activities.

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