A Smith professor recognized the spark of inspiration. It happened to Rebecca Rabinow ’88 during her junior year abroad in Paris on a side trip to the Musée Matisse in Nice. “I saw a room full of illustrated books that [Henri Matisse] had created that I didn’t know about,” Rabinow recalls. “French professor Josephine Ott later told me, ‘Every now and then you can see when someone’s life has changed and that’s what I witnessed with you. We couldn’t get you out of that room.’”

For Rabinow, there was no turning back. She went on to make Matisse’s artists’ books the subject of her honors thesis. (“It’s a bit embarrassing to me now that I’ve done so much more work on the topic. I think, ‘Wow, how naive!’” she says with a laugh.) That early fascination set her on a path that would lead to an illustrious career as a museum curator, including 26 years at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and now as the first woman director of the prestigious Menil Collection in Houston. In February she received a Smith College Medal.

As inspired as Rabinow was as an art history student, she couldn’t have foreseen the career she would go on to build. “I loved art but I also knew that I was going to have to make a living for myself,” she says, “so the question was, how to do that?”

Her first step was graduate school at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts. During her second year there, she landed a spot as a member of the curatorial staff at the Met. “It’s where I grew up,” Rabinow says. Her primary purview was European art from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Rabinow made headlines when she helped secure the Leonard A. Lauder Collection of Cubist paintings, says former Met colleague Michael Gallagher, deputy director for conservation and Sherman Fairchild Chairman of Paintings Conservation. He calls the gift “transformational,” and says its celebratory exhibition in 2014 “heralded a new beginning for the museum in terms of its representation of this seminal moment in the art of the early 20th century.”

In 2016, Rabinow was presented with the opportunity to head Houston’s Menil Collection, a unique museum with strengths that include modern and contemporary art, African, Pacific Northwest and Pacific Islands art as well as Mediterranean antiquities. She grabbed her chance.

“The art is top-notch and the architecture is as well,” she says. The museum, which opened in 1987, was founded by art collectors John and Dominique de Menil. It is the first U.S. museum to have been designed by Pritzker Prize–winning architect Renzo Piano (Pompidou Center, Whitney Museum of American Art). Today, the Menil Collection consists of five art buildings with green spaces and parks within a 30-acre historic Houston neighborhood. The other buildings include a Dan Flavin installation, the Cy Twombly Gallery, the Byzantine Fresco Chapel and the new Menil Drawing Institute.

Particularly meaningful to Rabinow is that, at a time when museum ticket prices are escalating, access to the Menil and all of its public programming are free to the public. “The idea is that everyone deserves to live with art,” she says. “Whether you have a dollar in your wallet or a million, you still have that opportunity.”

Part of the Menil’s charm, she says, is its insistence on “not trying to be everything to everyone.” “It is not an encyclopedic collection,” she says.

“Where it has work, it goes deep, and what it does, it does well.” Recent exhibitions, for instance, have included an installation of historic and contemporary art from Mali’s Bandiagara region and a presentation of sculpture and drawings made by Mona Hatoum, whose critically acclaimed works address issues of political and environmental displacement.

The spiritual aspect of art—of deep interest to the de Menils—is one Rabinow also wants to nurture. “It’s something they felt was important for their soul, this greater, more universal feeling of contemplation, of looking, of thinking,” she says. “The belief that art can produce a feeling in the viewer that is akin to a spiritual experience that one might have in a place of worship.”

To that end, Rabinow continues the Menil’s tradition of eschewing didactic labels and wall texts. “At the Menil, no one tells you what you have to think when you look at any given artwork. There’s no correct way to experience it,” Rabinow says. “You could like a piece because it’s beautiful, because it’s thought-provoking, because it’s challenging; I’ve liked art for all those reasons.”

Met colleague Gallagher calls Rabinow “a natural leader” and underscores her passion and scholarship. “She cares deeply about artworks and is able to draw insights from them firsthand by careful looking, allied with first-rate research,” he says. “As a leader, she combines humility, vision and, I believe, a steely will—all of which are essential.”

Running the museum and managing a staff of 125 keeps Rabinow challenged and fulfilled, as she expected it would. What she didn’t anticipate—even though she lived in Houston as a teenager—was her affection for the Houston of today. “It’s so open, so welcoming, so diverse, so allowing for people to take risks,” she says. “It feels fresh to me.”

Beyond the museum, Rabinow and her husband, music executive Matt Ringel, devote their time to two teenage sons, and together they frequent all types of concerts, from opera to rap and country. Rabinow enjoys exploring the city. This spring found her cheering on her favorite entries at the annual art car parade, unexpectedly trying on saris in a fabric store where she had gone to find fabric for an ottoman, and drinking honey wine at an Ethiopian restaurant recommended by a gallery attendant.

This November, the museum’s reputation—and size—will grow with the opening of the Menil Drawing Institute, a building dedicated to the acquisition, study, exhibition, conservation and storage of modern and contemporary works on paper. And whether she is in Houston or traveling, Rabinow’s love for art provides an unending source of interest wherever she is. “You’re always learning,” she says. “For me, that’s the driving force.”

Smith ID

Senior House: Wilder
Major: Art history
Favorite Memory: On her first day at Smith, Rabinow remembers the speech President Mary Maples Dunn gave to her class. “She said, ‘Look around you.
That woman is going to get the highest grade in your math class. That woman is going to be class president.’ It was so empowering. I just hadn’t experienced anything like that before.”

Hannah Hepfer is a writer in Austin, Texas.

SAQ, Summer 2018