Tall, fair-haired, and patrician, strongly emitting that ineffable thing called presence, Timothy Rub is wandering through the galleries of the Philadelphia Museum of Art late one recent night like a kid let loose in a candy shop.

"Isn't that fantastic?" he says, sidling up to Monet's Water Lilies, Japanese Footbridge. "This is a superb painting." He points out the unusual thickness of paint and the diffuse ochres, tans, and greens that make the piece seem almost more abstract than impressionist.

Later, an early Tanguy steals his attention, then a pair of Warhols, then a burlap canvas of dense grids. "Isn't that a painting by Torres-Garcia?" he says.

Perhaps it is more accurate to say that Rub is like a kid who has just been given the candy shop. Lured from the Cleveland Museum of Art, he arrives in Philadelphia this fall to succeed the late Anne d'Harnoncourt as director and chief executive officer of the Art Museum - a move many art leaders view as a bit of inevitable justice.

"Tim is terrific. He has done a great deal for the Cleveland Museum. But Cleveland's loss is Philadelphia's gain," Museum of Modern Art president emerita Agnes Gund, who has ties to both museums, said through an intermediary. "Few people can step into Anne d'Harnoncourt's shoes and possess the same elegance and class and knowledge to position a museum. But Tim is such an individual."

Art Museum curators say Rub's arrival comes not a moment too soon. The museum has had temporary leadership since d'Harnoncourt's death in June 2008, and though planning for a $500 million expansion and other ambitions have continued, key decisions await an authority figure.

This is the perfect time, several say, to have an outsider - soon to be an insider - review plans by Frank Gehry's firm to expand and reorder the museum experience.

"He sounds like a smart guy, and it's always an advantage to have a fresh eye take a look at what you've planned, even if it only confirms your plans," says Marsha Perelman, a prominent Philadelphia contemporary-art collector and former Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden board member.

Observers sensitive to careerism view his departure from the Cleveland Museum of Art after only three years rather skeptically. Will he leave Philadelphia just as easily if, say, the directorship of the Metropolitan Museum of Art comes open?

Rub, 57, says no, Philadelphia is his destination: "There is no other place I would like to be." His reason for leaving Cleveland, midway through a $350 million expansion begun before he arrived, is not mysterious.

It's the art.

"I think it's a well-understood decision given the obvious distinction of this museum," says Evan Hopkins Turner, a Philadelphian who has led both institutions - Philadelphia's from 1964 to 1978, Cleveland's from 1983 to 1993.

"He made no secret about the fact that Philadelphia is a favorite of his," says Michael Horvitz, the Cleveland museum's board chairman. "The opportunity for him to be the leader of the museum that he has admired since he was a child, which I believe was really the foundation of his introduction to art history, it's an opportunity for him he couldn't pass up."

Rub wasn't a child when he began regular pilgrimages to the Philadelphia museum, but he was certainly in the infancy of his art education.

In the early '70s, Rub, a motorcyclist (owner of a Honda 450) with hair nearly to his shoulders, was an English major at Middlebury College. Obliged to take a course outside his field, he signed up for 20th-century art.

Rub was one of those students who have a formidable intellect but don't always apply themselves, a professor recalled.

"In order to encourage him to do more art history and maybe a little less partying, I gave him a key to my office and told him he was free to use it any time I wasn't in it," says John Hunisak, professor of history of art and architecture. "I knew I had a star on my hands, no question, and when he put his mind to working - which he had to be prodded to do sometimes - he was extraordinary in terms of what he produced."

Rub the museum director presents a highly refined veneer, but the impression in those days, Hunisak says, was of "a wonderfully individualistic character. His humor is so quirky, and he can mask it totally, which is terrific. But I think it's always there."

Growing up, Rub had no idea what his career might be. Born in Queens on March 9, 1952, and raised there (in Richmond Hill) until he was 7 and then in Westfield, N.J., he received early training as a violinist. His father was a banker, but also an active organist.

Rub studied violin from second grade until well into college, and went as far as attending the summer program at Interlochen, the highly respected arts camp in Michigan. "That proved to me how talented some people are. I was good," he says, but he didn't have what great violinists have. "They have something, like artists, remarkable in their fingertips."

In college, he sang - tenor - in school ensembles. He didn't have a clear career destination, but grew so excited by art he switched majors, as a sophomore, to art history. "I had very little exposure to the visual arts until that time."

When Rub began visiting Philadelphia, one of the works that hooked him was Rogier van der Weyden's The Crucifixion, with the Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist Mourning, the spare and strangely powerful diptych (circa 1460) from the Johnson Collection that is one of the museum's gems.

The piece lacked the place of ceremony it has today (dramatically lit and set above a stone altar), not to mention the restoration unveiled in 1993. But it mesmerized Rub.

"In van der Weyden's work you see an extraordinary humanism coupled with an intense spirituality. And for me the most deeply moving of his paintings is the one in this collection. I was entranced by this work, and I still have that same feeling every time that I stand before it. These things are really hard to predict. Every once in a while you connect to something in a way that's inexplicable."

After graduation in 1974, he took a year and a half off. He spent some time in Palo Alto, Calif., where he worked as a carpenter, waited tables, tended bar - and met his wife-to-be, Sally Harris. And then, with the money he had saved, he went to Europe for the first time to look at art and architecture.

From that point on, everything Rub did pointed him to leadership at a museum. He moved to New York in 1976 and got a master's in art history from the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University. He finished doctoral coursework, but left his dissertation undone. The title: Norman Bel Geddes and Theatre Design in America, 1914-1960.

He landed an internship at the Met, then in 1983 became a curator at New York's Cooper-Hewitt. After four years, he went back to school to earn his MBA at Yale University. From there he became associate director, then director, of the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College. Simultaneously, he went through Harvard University's yearlong Program for Art Museum Directors.

The Hood was a decent-size job, with a $2.3 million budget and staff of 31, but Rub's next move was the big leap. At the Cincinnati Art Museum, where he became director and CEO in 2000, he directed 180 employees and a budget of $11.5 million.

It was there that he gained experience overseeing a large construction project. In his six years in Cincinnati, the museum opened a $10 million wing and raised an endowment allowing for the elimination of admission fees.

The constant moving, he says, has not been easy. Rub will come here in the fall with his wife, a former graphic designer. "She has indulged me immensely," he says. His daughter, Katharine, 19, will continue college in Akron, Ohio. Son Peter, 23, an aspiring pop musician who has been living in California, might move to Philadelphia.

He's still sorting out the question of where they'll live. "We've had just the most abbreviated conversations about this at home," he says.

Music retains a place in Rub's life. He is a fan of singers Audra McDonald and Dawn Upshaw, composers Steve Reich and Philip Glass.

In his recent spare time - "What spare time?" he says - he reread Stendhal's The Red and the Black, and Hilary Spurling's two-volume biography of Matisse, "my favorite modern painter."

Inevitably, Rub will be compared with his predecessor. Curators came to Philadelphia to work with d'Harnoncourt. She befriended artists - not just the Ellsworth Kellys of the world, but local ones, too.

She rose up - if behind the scenes - when Thomas Eakins' The Gross Clinic threatened to slip out of town, helping to structure a deal and raise the $68 million required to keep it. She did battle with The Inquirer when it covered museum fire-code violations. She was a stealth player in determining the future of the Barnes and, at her death, was still strategizing to establish a Calder museum here.

If Robert Montgomery Scott was the avuncular and aristocratic museum president who hosted bike rides, and d'Harnoncourt the powerhouse who could wrestle opponents to the ground with velvet gloves, what kind of personification of the museum will Rub prove to be?

"It will be different," says Charles Venable, who worked with Rub for two years as deputy director in Cleveland before becoming director of the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Ky. "Even with Anne's sense of humor, her flamboyance, and her sense of dress, Timothy is - even though he's from New York - he's kind of New England. He's somewhat reserved, a little formal in the way he likes to handle his board relations and his staff."

"He's not a fast talker or someone who comes in and dazzles you with sleight of hand or a lot of flash," says Horvitz, Cleveland's chairman. "But he instills confidence in people. He's a very nice person, always pleasant, extremely attractive, a handsome and impressive-looking individual. I don't know what a museum director looks like, but he looks like a museum director."

Contact culture writer Peter Dobrin
at 215-854-5611 or pdobrin@phillynews.com.