CLEVELAND - When a shipment of white Georgia marble for the Cleveland Museum of Art's new wing came in a bit too dark, director Timothy Rub insisted it be sent back to the supplier. When he learned that architect Rafael Vinoly planned to line up the new galleries in a staggered, off-center arrangement, Rub told him to straighten the axis. When Rub saw that the main contemporary gallery had been chopped into small rooms, he requested a do-over to create a more open, free-flowing space.
Rub, who was named this week as the new head of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, made those decisions long after the Cleveland Museum of Art had signed off on Vinoly's architectural drawings; the $350 million project was under construction when he assumed the director's job. Indeed, the steel frame was being welded in place when Rub decided the corridor linking the 20th-century galleries needed to be realigned to give visitors a clearer route through the museum.
While the lanky former New Yorker brings to his new job a resume strong on all the essential art-world skills, one of the qualities that surely impressed the Philadelphia trustees is his ability to manage a big construction project and a big architectural ego. The Philadelphia museum was cleared yesterday by the city's Art Commission to begin the first phase of an ambitious, multiyear expansion designed by one of America's most celebrated architects, Frank Gehry. The $500 million project will radically reconfigure the pathways through Philadelphia's premier art museum and create an entirely new galaxy of galleries below its front terrace.
In Cleveland, there is little doubt that Rub, 57, wielded a strong managerial hand during construction of the museum's new wing, which opened Sunday, the day before his Philadelphia appointment was officially announced. He was so confident in his judgment that he persuaded Cleveland's trustees to toss out an approved lighting scheme and install another in the galleries, adding roughly $1 million to the project's cost.
Not every museum board would have responded well to such last-minute second-guessing; some might have even seen the changes as capricious. But Cleveland's trustees have been lavish in praising Rub's architectural oversight during his three-year tenure. And the results are immediately validated in the elegantly detailed, clean-flowing interiors in Vinoly's addition - whose quality is far superior to his Philadelphia undertakings at the Kimmel Center and the Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.
Cleveland trustee Michael Horvitz, head of the museum's building committee, said he did not regret a single change Rub suggested. "We will be reaping the benefits in the next phase of construction and long after he's gone."
Rub was able to edit Vinoly's architectural drawings because he specialized in architectural history as a grad student at New York University's Institute of Fine Arts. Though research for his still-unfinished dissertation was on theater design's evolution, he says it taught him how space is framed and objects perceived within that space.
"Being an architectural historian doesn't mean you can't be useful," he said with a laugh as he led a tour through the new gallery space. "I can read plans."
He will have a little more leisure to do that kind of reading when he arrives in Philadelphia in September.
While Cleveland was already framing out its addition when Rub arrived, construction on the first phase of Gehry's design won't start until spring. That $80 million project involves moving the loading dock from the museum's Kelly Drive side to its south portal, setting the stage for the more public and glamorous next step, which will push into a grotto below the east plaza. Since there are no architectural drawings for those galleries yet, work probably won't start until 2012 at the earliest.
Like Rub, Gehry and museum honchos in Philadelphia are eager to make the circuit through the galleries more logical. Gehry's most dramatic proposal calls for blowing out a major wall beyond the west entrance, where Marc Chagall's theater backdrop, A Wheatfield on a Summer's Afternoon, has hung for years.
Removing that wall would give visitors a straight shot into the museum's heart, an underground room just below the Great Hall. Models produced by Gehry's office show a huge volume of space bounded by an arcade of columns. All the museum's wings would radiate from that space.
Right now, visitors entering from the west side must choose between climbing a staircase to the Great Hall and the European galleries, or taking a roundabout route to the south wing's American galleries. And those who climb the "Rocky steps" are often perplexed about where to go after entering the Great Hall.
Rub says he is impressed by Gehry's idea: "I've been coming to the Philadelphia museum for 30 years, and I'm still confused. The building is very complicated. I believe the larger the complex, the clearer the circulation has to be."
If Rub does want to tinker with Gehry's plan, trustee Keith Sachs says he expects the board will be open-minded. "I would have expected that he would look at the project with a critical eye," Sachs said. "I'd like to believe that someone coming in doesn't feel automatically tied to the plan."
While Rub's changes in Cleveland certainly left a strong imprint, it's hard to attribute all its successes - or weaknesses - to him. Vinoly is credited with devising the smart master plan. The museum had started out in a small, graceful Neoclassical building, but was cluttered by haphazard additions. Vinoly advised tearing down all but one: a major entrance Marcel Breuer designed in 1971.
It was also Vinoly who rationalized and simplified the museum's organization by proposing symmetrical side wings, to unite the original building and the Breuer addition around a glass-roofed atrium.
Rub was able to realize the completion only of the first of the wings, which, while it works beautifully inside, has a startling exterior. In an effort to unify the museum's parts - one Neoclassical, the other Brutalist - Vinoly took the dominant material from each façade and quilted them together. The result is a strongly graphic striped façade of white marble and gray granite that unfortunately calls to mind prison stripes. Still, it has the advantage of livening up a very long, solid façade. And no one will ever forget what this museum looks like.
Had Rub been in on the project from the beginning, he said, he might have done a few things differently outside. In a rare instance of architectural self-criticism, he said he would try to reduce the height of the rough concrete elevator housing. The shafts look unfinished and clash with the sleek marble and granite of the facade.
But inside, he voiced no such doubts. Standing at the beginning of the long sequence of galleries that he insisted should line up like perfect soldiers, he effused about the axial view.
You know exactly where you are and where you're going. "I just felt," Rub explained, "that this was something that needed to be done to make a difference in the visitor's experience of this building."
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