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Museum volunteer astonishes PAFA with $8 million gift

Beloved tour guide Estelle Rubens had told the academy she planned to leave it a little something after she died. No one expected this. The $8 million gift is one of the largest in Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts history.

Estelle Rubens, PAFA docent who left the school $8 million to endow student travel.
Estelle Rubens, PAFA docent who left the school $8 million to endow student travel.Read morePennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

When Estelle Rubens died at age 88 in January 2018, she had no children or close relatives to watch over her. Her husband, Raymond, a lawyer, had died nearly two decades earlier.

But Rubens did not die alone. She had the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and memories of her many years there as a volunteer guide for comfort. And she had her art, works by the likes of Alexander Calder and Red Grooms on the walls of her apartment on John F. Kennedy Boulevard.

With no immediate heirs, it seemed natural to remember PAFA in her will. She told its officials that she intended to leave the academy a little something.

But those officials and her fellow volunteer guides were stunned by the magnitude of her generosity — nearly $8 million, all to endow traveling fellowships for students at PAFA’s school.

“We knew the bequest was coming,” said David R. Brigham, PAFA president and chief executive. “But we had no idea of the magnitude. It far exceeded our expectations.”

“It’s one of the largest gifts ever given to the academy. It’s exceptional," he continued. “She and her husband had no children. So in a way, PAFA was her family.”

“That’s amazing,” said Florence Lovitz, a longtime friend of Rubens. “Wow! Amazing! I’m shocked. She lived simply, nothing fancy.”

The Raymond D. and Estelle Rubens Travel Scholarship Fund at PAFA will provide selected students $5,000 for travel. A minimum of three scholarships will be awarded each year. At this year’s commencement in May, PAFA will award fellowships to eight students, based on merit, officials said.

In addition, the Rubens fund will cover full tuition for the students for the two semesters after their return to school. It joins seven other endowed traveling scholarships offered by the academy.

“She was an extremely generous person,” said lawyer Joseph McDevitt, co-executor of the Rubens estate.

And she loved to travel, McDevitt added. Italy and its museums were a favorite destination.

“She was interested in helping students,” McDevitt said. “She didn’t have any children of her own, and she grew fond of helping students at the academy.”

As a volunteer guide — or docent — for at least 15 years, beginning in the 1990s, Rubens led tours for visitors and talked about the art hanging at the academy, largely works from the permanent collection.

The docent of your dreams

“Estelle Rubens was the kind of volunteer docent every museum dreams of having as part of their family,” said Monica Zimmerman, PAFA director of museum education. “She loved both the collection and the audience equally, and always brought a fun — and funky — style to the experiences she created in the gallery for our visitors. She believed that everyone could have a personal relationship with art. And she was hands-down the best-dressed museum guide I’ve ever worked with.”

Rubens was “quirky,” Zimmerman said, “but good quirky.” She was “eccentric, she was quirky, she was funny, and she was really smart.”

As a docent, “she really knew how to read her audience,” Zimmerman said. If Rubens detected an interest in history among her group of visitors, she would accommodate. If the interest was more in the art, she would accommodate that.

“She didn’t give a cookie-cutter tour,” Zimmerman said. “She loved the historic, and she loved connecting the history of American art with contemporary audiences.”

And she did it with humor as much as erudition, if not more so.

“I never met a volunteer docent who could do with humor what she could do,” Zimmerman said. “She had the extraordinary ability to get people to laugh their way into learning.”

Not only that, she was a dresser.

“Everything matched. Her hat. Whatever. Shoes. Dress — it all matched,” said fellow docent Maxine Brodo, whose father-in-law, Joseph Brodo, was a violinist in the Philadelphia Orchestra and taught the instrument to Rubens when she was a young girl.

“She was easily the best-dressed volunteer I’ve ever met,” said Zimmerman. “She always had a wild and crazy hat or a piece of jewelry.”

As serendipitous as that may seem, Zimmerman said, it was a great thing for visitors, who would encounter “a lady with some lipstick on, a fun hat, and think to themselves, `I’m going to have a good day.' ”

Brodo, the fellow docent, would meet Rubens for lunch now and again, and visited her in her apartment.

“She had a lot of art in her apartment,” Brodo said. “She loved art. She was a docent. She was partial to American art. We all are."