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Buddhadharma : Summer 2005
buddhadharma| 81 |summer 2005 in 1997, Shelley and Donald Rubin, longtime collectors of Himalayan art, decided it was time to make more of this richly detailed and largely sacred art available on the Internet. Under the spon- sorship of the Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation, their efforts blossomed into Himalayan Art Resources, which main- tains an ever-growing website of encyclo- pedic scope. The site, himalayanart.org, is a boon not only to art scholars and enthusiasts, but also to practitioners and students of Vajrayana Buddhism, who can view hundreds of sacred images ac- companied by precisely detailed descrip- tions of their iconography. The nearly twenty thousand images of sculptures, ritual objects, paintings, and textiles on the site are not limited to Buddhist works. The Hindu and Bön traditions are also richly represented. Di- rector Jeff Watt (who is also curator of the Rubin Museum of Art) and a small staff have pulled together images from almost eighty different sources, includ- ing private collections, photographic ar- chives, published works, and nearly forty museums in North America, Europe, and Asia. Watt and his team have been able to forge relationships with numerous insti- tutions, he says, because “in many cases A virtuAl muSeum himAlAyAn Art reSourceS By Barry Boyce these institutions do not have the time or expertise to catalog their collections.” If any site could claim to be a virtual museum, it is himalayanart.org. One can browse for hours through gallery after gallery of images, pulling them up from a long list, tunneling down and zoom- ing in to the point where the palm of a buddha’s hand takes up the whole screen. For Watt, however, offering a dazzling online art show is a small part of the story. “When this art was first looked at and collected in the West,” he told me in his Manhattan office, “its meanings and context were not well understood.” Pointing to shelves and piles of books of Himalayan art, he explained, “Most of the descriptions in these works are ninety percent wrong. People just did not know what they were looking at and they made very bad guesses.” Watt began practicing under the late Deshung Rinpoche over thirty years ago and has spent many years in retreat. When the Rubins called on him in early 1998, he had been translating litur- gies and commentaries for practitioners and keeping up a website that included iconographical descriptions. Watt felt the foundation’s work provided an opportu- nity to promote Himalayan art, which he emphasized is “world-class on its own artistic merits.” This seemed particularly critical given the decline of some of the Himalayan art traditions in their native lands and the lack of understanding and appreciation of them in the West. “The role of Himalayan Art Resources,” explained Watt, “is to introduce and ex- hibit Himalayan and Tibetan art to a gen- eral audience. As a natural outgrowth of that, we provide organization and scrupu- lous description that is of value to prac- titioners to use as tools in their practice. We do not promote Buddhism, or Bön, or Hinduism for that matter; teachers do that. However, as the art is promoted, Buddhism will follow for those who are interested.” The Tibetan Buddhist Resource Cen- ter, which is housed in offices down the hall from Himalayan Art Resources, provides all the biographical details for identifiable portrait paintings and sculp- ture in the site’s database. The TBRC is directed by Gene Smith, a famed Tibetan scholar, who also began his studies under Deshung Rinpoche and who has devoted more than four decades to collecting and reprinting Tibetan texts. Half of the por- traits on the Himalayan Art site are now linked to TBRC’s biographical records, ProFile