Mera Rubell: In search of the invisible

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Donald and Mera Rubell. The Rubells, aged 82 and 79 respectively, started collecting art in 1965 on a budget of $25 a week when Mera was a schoolteacher and Donald was a medical student. Their modest resources compelled them to focus on obscure, emerging artists, a tradition they continue to this day. Many of those artists would go on to become widely known. Even so, the Rubells don’t buy to sell, having sold less than 20 pieces in half a century of collecting. The collection has been noted for its strong holdings of African American, Latin American and Asian artists. Photo: Rubell Museum.

“Pioneers” and “tastemakers,” are oft-deployed monikers for Donald and Mera Rubell, deans of Miami’s bustling art scene.  And rightly so. The Rubell Museum, opened in 2019, is spread out over 100,000 square feet and houses in excess of 7,500 works by more than 1,000 artists including Jeff Koons, Keith Haring, Cindy Sherman and Jean-Michel Basquiat.  By any measure, theirs is one of the largest collections of contemporary art in the world, reportedly drawing several hundred thousand visitors per year.

The current museum is a second incarnation. The first was a 45,000-square-foot art center known at the Rubell Family Collection, located in a Drug Enforcement Administration storage facility in Wynwood.  Arguably, its opening in 1993 catalyzed other art collectors to display their treasures to the public, too.  It also helped transform Wynwood from a down-on-its-heels neighborhood to a magnet for artists and art galleries, shops and restaurants.

Housed in a former industrial warehouse, the 100,000-square-foot Rubell museum was designed by Selldorf Architects. The complex includes an art research library, a gift shop and a restaurant. Photo: Selldorf Architects

Indeed, the Rubells can be credited for helping to turn Miami into an art world destination.  Some 20 years ago, they were instrumental in bringing Art Basel to Miami Beach.  This, North America’s most comprehensive international art fair, returned to the Magic City for its 21st edition last December, with the largest show to date.  Thousands of art aficionados, collectors, dealers and artists gathered to take in modern art from 283 galleries from 38 countries.

Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Money Makes Money), 2001. “When you see the way words are presented, it’s Barbara Kruger. Not only does she give you something pretty to look at, but she’s aware of marketing, of the power of words, of the power of image and she knows how to combine them.”

And that’s not all.  Last October, the Rubells opened a second museum, this time in Washington DC.  Here too, the site is “on the wrong side of the tracks,” according to Mera.  The 32,000-square-foot 1906 building once housed a segregated junior high school for black students, counting Motown titan Marvin Gaye among its alumni.  More recently, it had lain empty for the better part of a  decade.  As with the Miami institution, civic engagement is a key objective.  Many of the artists currently on display are from the capital and admission is free for DC residents.

During our interview, Mera said that “everyone leaves their mark in this world, one way or another.”  Some perhaps more than others. Below, we discuss all manner of topics including art, beauty, long marriages and good skincare.

Ultimately, what do you hope to achieve with your museums?

For us to continue to be motivated, stimulated and inspired.  We had no idea when we started on this public journey 30 years ago, how much inspiration that would bring to our collecting because when you’re engaging with the public, it’s very meaningful.  The fact that an artwork can touch you, the fact that we can share that, it’s very exciting.  It’s moving.

You once said that art has saved your life, your marriage and your family.  In what way?

It was saved in the sense that you stay very relevant.  It enables you to carry on an emotional, meaningful conversation with your spouse and with your children.  In addition, I found myself in art because art has a way of saying, “Whatever you are, whoever you are, is acceptable.”

This writer recently visited the Miami museum on a beautiful Saturday, an ideal beach-going day in January. Yet, the museum was quite busy with people of all ages, from young parents with babies in strollers to octogenarians.

How so?

Because the portrait is not always the prettiest person.  Beauty is not defined by the standards that advertising puts out there.  Beauty is not defined by Hollywood.  Art gives you a different definition of beauty and more than one path to think about things.

When you moved to Miami from New York in the early 1990s, the city wasn’t exactly a bastion of culture.  What made you come down here?

Both sets of aging parents were living in Miami.  But also, I was blown away by the real estate opportunities.  You could walk down Lincoln Road and every single building was for sale with owners hoping that someone would walk in and make them an offer.

Donald and Mera’s son, Jason Rubell. His idea of using shipping containers as makeshift galleries helped seal the deal to bring Art Basel to Miami two decades ago. Today, Don, Mera and Jason must have unanimous agreement before purchasing a piece of art. Photo: Rubell Museum

Was there anything at all that marked Miami as a potential cultural hub?

No!  My husband was a champion tennis player and the idea of being around tennis was very appealing.  It wasn’t until we found the former DEA building in Wynwood, that I said to Don, “What if we could move our collection here?”  The storage bills in New York were astronomical and also, we weren’t living with the work.

Our son, Jason, was an art history major at Duke University at the time and his professor, Kristine Stiles, said “Why don’t we do a study of what it means for private collections to go public?” And that really turned him on.

What made you want to bring Art Basel to Miami?

For years, Basel was flirting with the idea of coming to America.  And we said, “Why not Miami?”  What the Swiss city was to Europe, we felt Miami was to the rest of South and North America — in the middle, positioned to attract both continents.

The clincher was my son saying to the director, “You should have shipping containers with art on the beach as a way of distinguishing yourself from other art fairs.  It would capture everyone’s imagination in the winter.”

The combination of the convention center for the Picassos and the containers for the young art on the beach was the winning argument.

Shipping containers on the beach served as pop-up exhibition booths during Art Basel Miami’s inaugural exhibit in 2002. “In the early days it was a shipping container with the gallerist sitting on chairs on the sand. It was a big adventure.”

How would you describe the Miami art scene today?

Growing.  Not just in the visual arts with all the museums and galleries, but in the performing arts too.  None of it was here.  People are impressed with the big condo buildings in Miami.  I’m impressed with these hundreds of people on a sunny beautiful day being here at the museum looking at art.  The beach isn’t the only attraction.  People coming here need more than a beach.  They’re looking for what people around the world are looking for, which is cultural engagement.  This is becoming a mature city and people want culture.  Culture is really powerful.  In some ways, culture has become our new temple of sorts.  Culture makes a city.

Paintings by John Baldessari, including Stake: Art is Food for Thought and Food Costs Money, 1985. Photo: Chi Lam.

What’s the overarching philosophy behind your and your husband’s collecting?

It’s actually quite simple:  we’re open.  We stay open-minded.  We don’t go into the world with a prescription for what we’re looking for.  I don’t see how you can collect contemporary art if you already know what you’re looking for.

What would your advice be to a novice collector?

Stay open.  Be curious, be listening, looking, reading, thinking and asking.  Be alert.

Yayoi Kusama, Narcissus Garden, 1966-2018. The artist’s mirrored orbs are perhaps even more reflective of our current egocentric, selfie-obsessed times than when they were first exhibited in 1966 at the Venice Biennale. A red heart by Keith Haring is in the background. “Coming out of the pandemic, we were all looking at ourselves. It was constant engagement with ourselves and it was a powerful time to engage with ourselves. So, the narcissus garden really speaks to this moment.” Photo: Rubell Museum

Which new artists do you have your eye on?

Alexandre Diop.  He was here for three months [as part of the museum’s coveted Artist-in-Residence program] and he captured our imagination.

How do you select the Artist-in-Residence?

It’s a mystery.  There’s no formula.  We don’t say, “Send in your slides, submit your images.”  Each one of the artists in residence that we have had comes from a different source.  They each have something that intrigued us to engage with the artist.

The French-Senegalese artist, Alexandre Diop, standing in front of Le Mensonge d’Etat, one of the works he completed while he was the Artist-in-Residence in 2022. “We saw his work and we thought we were looking at something we hadn’t seen before – this combination of the person, the energy, the conversation we had with him. We thought this is a really dynamic person.” Photo: Jorit Aust

So, you really look to establish a connection with the artist?

As we walk around, I can’t think of an artist that we don’t know.  Of the 1,000-some artists in the collection, we’ve met every one.  We’ve probably had at least a meal or traveled across the globe to visit them with their families.  We’ve been to China, Poland, everywhere.

Just think of what that means in terms of our life together!  When I say it’s made my life with my husband so exciting, imagine going to all these places, experiencing all these artists.  How exciting is that – just having a purpose, a curiosity to see and to dig into what makes an artist make the work!

What’s the secret to a long marriage then?

We recently had dinner with four couples.  They’ve each been married to the same person for more than 30 years.  That’s pretty unusual.  This year, I will have been married 59 years.  What makes it work is having some kind of interest, some kind of passion together.  He could not drag me and I could not drag him to all the museums the two of us went to.  We discovered this together because neither one of us majored in art history.

Meeting the right person at an early age is a big deal.  It’s not like we don’t fight.  We are so different.  But we somehow really engage with each other after all these years.  We’re still interested in each other.  The art plays a huge part.  The absolute magic in my marriage is when Don and I look at art together.  It’s just unbelievably exciting!  It’s so exciting when we’re looking at something we’ve never seen before and the two of us are dying to dissect it.

The museum’s art research library — the most extensive in South Florida — holds 40,000 volumes. The painting is by Allison Zuckerman.

Tell me about the Washington DC museum.

It was 15 years in the works.  It’s in a former segregated junior high school.  It’s a very special building with a special history.  The connection to Marvin Gaye means a lot.  This was a neighborhood that was devastated by highways that were being built to take people out to the suburbs.  Highways usually cut through poor neighborhoods.  This was on the wrong side of the tracks.  The environment makes a big difference to art – history, place, architecture – everything matters because art feeds off of the spiritual legacy of a building.  And that building’s legacy is so powerful.

The Rubell Museum in Washington DC was designed by Beyer Blinder Belle. Photo: Chi Lam

The artists Kehinde Wiley (left) and El Anatsui (Right) feature in the Washington DC museum’s inaugural exhibition What’s Going On. “Seeing the art in that space, knowing that when you step out the door, you can see the dome of Congress, it’s a big responsibility. Not only is it powerful for the art, but for us it’s a big responsibility because it’s not just anywhere. It’s in DC. That kind of hit us. We didn’t quite realize how powerful an obligation that is. But as it turns out, we were inspired by Marvin Gaye, an alumnus of that school, to name that opening exhibition What’s going on about black mothers mourning the death of their sons in Vietnam. It became a world-famous song, an inspiration. What a powerful legacy it was.” Photo: Chi Lam.

One of the 20 drawings by Keith Haring in his Against All Odds series, currently on display at the DC museum. “When my husband’s brother [Steve Rubell, co-founder of Studio 54 and hotelier] passed away from AIDS, Keith Haring was a good friend of ours and of my brother-in-law’s. We invited him to do a work honoring him. In 1989 he produced 20 drawings called Against All Odds and he wrote a note saying he did these drawings while listening to Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” over and over again. That connection hit us.” Photo: Rubell Museum.

You had once said “Find the invisible.”  What do you mean by that?

I think you can intersect with things that you don’t know in a way that is very spiritual.  We are so busy, so distracted, we can miss the invisible and the invisible may be the thing.  It may be the black swan.  The question every day is “What am I missing that could enrich my life and I don’t even see it?”

Our whole business is based on that too.  We find invisible properties.  We found this neighborhood that no one was looking at.  No one in Miami was looking at warehouses near the railroad tracks.

I have to ask — how do you maintain your youthful looks?!

Swimming and I’ve used Visible Difference by Elizabeth Arden for years and years.  I think it’s an incredible product and my skin is very, very sensitive.

Elizabeth Arden’s Visible Difference moisturizing cream. “I have very sensitive skin and I swim every day, so I need something that is gentle and moisturizing. I’ve given this cream to my husband. I’ve given it to my daughter. It’s really a magic cream.”

Lastly, what are your hopes and dreams for the Rubell collection?

What I hope is that the art will continue to be a source of joy and love in my family.  I hope that it won’t become contentious, that it won’t be something that’s about value, so they can buy another abode.  I don’t want to leave a blueprint for what my children and grandchildren should do — but just for them to appreciate that it could be something very meaningful in their lives — that this can be a platform to engage in creativity.

Beyond our family, the glue, the magic inside our time together is art.  It’s dynamic.  It’s just a miracle the way we look at art and the way we’re able to read the art together.  We don’t always agree.  And then our son coming into that equation for the last 30 years …  The three of us have to agree on every work we buy otherwise we don’t buy it.

The magic that the two of us and then the three of us have built together is really, really a life force.  Everyone has to find their joy.

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