Robert S. Rubin, a philanthropist and investment banker, has died at 86. As chairman of the board of the Brooklyn Museum, Rubin defended the institution from censorship after then-mayor Rudy Giuliani took offense at one of its planned exhibits. His son Nathaniel told The New York Times’s Sam Roberts that the cause of Rubin’s death was pneumonia.
In 1999, a scheduled exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum, “Sensation: Young British Artists From the Saatchi Collection,” provoked the ire of then-mayor Rudy Giuliani. As Artsy reports, Giuliani’s press secretary told the New York Daily News — which had published a piece critical of the exhibit — that “assuming the description of the exhibit is accurate, no money should be spent on it.” Giuliani was particularly incensed by Chris Ofili’s “The Holy Virgin Mary,” which, per Roberts’s description, depicts the religious figure “stained with elephant dung.”
During the tense battle that followed, Rubin reportedly played an integral role in standing up to Giuliani. When the Mayor threatened, in the words of The New York Times’s Dan Barry and Carol Vogel, to “cut off all subsidies to the Brooklyn Museum of Art,” Rubin and the rest of the museum’s board refused to capitulate. Rubin led a preemptive suit against the city, accusing Giuliani of violating the first amendment in threatening to withhold city funds.
“This litigation is not just about the Brooklyn Museum of Art,” Rubin said in a press conference at the time, according to The New York Times. “It is being undertaken in the interests of all public institutions — museums, universities and libraries — that are dedicated to the free exchange of ideas and information, and in the interests of the people they serve.”
Eventually, Roberts writes in The Times, the exhibit “came and went,” and Giuliani “called a cease fire,” withdrawing his suit. In his obituary, Roberts quotes Rubin’s remark upon the museum’s victory: “The events of the past six months have only made our institution stronger and more dedicated to our mission.”
Rubin’s affection for his native borough stretched beyond his role in defending the Brooklyn Museum in this well-publicized legal battle. He was a former board member at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, according to their website, and was also a longtime benefactor of the Brooklyn Historical Society, according to The New York Times. He and his wife, Martha, who passed away last February, were also founding members of Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s School, according to Martha Rubin’s obituary in The Brooklyn Eagle.