December 21, 2011
Don and Mera Rubell. Photo courtesy of the Contemporary Arts Foundation
When Don and Mera Rubell started collecting art in 1964, their monthly collecting budget was $25. Forty-seven years later, the Rubells have amassed an internationally renowned collection of approximately 5,000 works, including pieces by Kehinde Wiley, Ai Weiwei, Marilyn Minter, Elizabeth Peyton, and many more 20th and 21st-century artists. The Rubells are equally committed to enhancing the presence of the visual arts in their adopted home of Miami (since 1992) and to sharing the Rubell Family Collection with the community. They were instrumental in bringing the contemporary art fair Art Basel to Miami Beach, and through the Contemporary Arts Foundation, they present work from the collection for public viewing year-round and curate a number of shows, many of which have toured to other museums. They also have donated countless artworks to institutions across the U.S., including a gift of more than 100 works by Purvis Young to be installed in the Martin Luther King, Jr. International Chapel at Morehouse College. In the following interview Don and Mera talk about their introduction to the arts, their commitment to public sharing of the Rubell Family Collection, and even dispense some pithy advice for novice collectors.
NEA: What do you remember as your earliest experience/engagement with the arts?
DON: My grandmother had a print of Jan Van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Marriage. I didn’t know what it was, but I realized it was something different than anything I had seen before. Even at age six, I found it intriguing and each time I visited I would stare at this portrait.
MERA: My father was always sketching people. He would take long subway rides so he could sketch people sleeping, and he did these wonderful portraits for tourists in Central Park.
NEA: What’s been your most significant arts experience to date?
DON: An exhibition that contained Marcel Duchamp’s urinal that I saw as an undergraduate at Cornell. It was absolutely bewildering, but the image has stayed with me ever since, although it was many years before words like “appropriation” entered my vocabulary.
MERA: A Motherwell exhibition at [the Museum of Modern Art in New York] in 1965. It was a window into an abstract universe.
NEA: What was the very first piece of artwork you purchased (as an individual)? As a couple?
DON and MERA: For the 47 years we have been married, we have only purchased art as a couple. We met when Mera was 17 and Don was 21. When we married in New York in 1964, the economy was bad, and artists were able to use retail spaces as studios. The first piece we bought was by a young artist who had a studio in a storefront on 3rd Avenue. Meeting this artist launched our ability to become collectors. It was an epiphany: we could develop relationships with artists, and we could buy their work on a payment plan, which was essential for us at the time. (Don was a medical student, and Mera was a schoolteacher, and our collective income was only $100 a week.) It’s still important for us to have relationships with artists, but now it almost always happens through the galleries that represent them.
NEA: Which piece of visual art do you wish existed, and why?
DON and MERA: We don’t think that way. We look to the artist to make the art. The best we can hope for is to appreciate what that artist has created.
NEA: Why did you start the Rubell Family Collection?
DON and MERA: First, we have always felt very fortunate that artists and galleries have allowed us to purchase some of the artists’ sentinel pieces. We felt—and still feel—an obligation to share these works with others. Second, we were given the opportunity in 1993 to purchase a 40,000 square-foot former DEA drug and weapon confiscation center in the Wynwood district of Miami for about the same price as a one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan. Third, when our two kids studied art history, they were taught with slides and textbooks, which were usually behind the times. We were compelled to make the art we collected available for up-close, in-the-flesh viewing. Lastly, we felt that art students—particularly in Miami—usually learned about art up through Andy Warhol, and we wanted to create a place where they could consistently see what happened next. Miami was very different then!
NEA: The Contemporary Arts Foundation makes works from the Rubell Family Collection available for public viewing. Why do you think it’s important to make this work available to the community?
DON and MERA: For the last 18 years, our Collection has been open to the public year-round with tours, internships, lectures, and a library—all of which would not happen without the dedication of our extraordinary staff. Our director is a Miami graduate and has been with us for 14 years. We see the collection as a two-way street: Interaction with the public has tremendously enriched our lives. Thousands of school kids come through the collection and interact with the work and experience the role of art in the world. Art creates community, for them and for us. Art is a way for people to talk about everything else.
NEA: Any advice for young collectors?
DON and MERA: Look, Read, and Commit. In the early days, we would visit 30-40 galleries and 10-20 artist studios per month. We actually did this for almost two years before we purchased any art. To this day, we subscribe to ten art journals and have a library containing 40,000 volumes on contemporary art. However, there is a moment of reckoning when you must commit to your first piece. It is not until you sit (better than standing) in front of your first piece that you can decide how much, or even if, you like it and how much it means to you.
NEA: What do you think is the role of the artist in the community?
DON and MERA: Artists are both the shaman and the mirror for society; a critic and a visionary. We cannot tell you how often artists have changed the way we perceive our world.
NEA: What do you see as the responsibility of the community to the artist?
DON and MERA: Communities gain a lot from having artists as their citizens. Consistently, cities that embrace artists and arts institutions are more likely to experience economic growth, and they are simply more fun to live in.
NEA: With the advent of social media and the democratization of curation and criticism, there’s a lot of discussion of the role of the curator/critic in the contemporary art world. What’s your opinion on the “job description” for a curator/critic these days?
DON and MERA: The curator/critic’s primary responsibility is to act as a filter and encourage dialogue. There are tens of thousands of artists, and it is an enormous help to have people who look at an endless number of objects and who can tell us what they find most interesting. The second part of the job is to help us sort through very complex ideas which may be alien to the observer. It gives us a head start on our road to understanding a visual experience. Like the best teachers, they do not give the answer but rather help us find the path to our own answers.
NEA: Mera, you have recently made extended studio visits in both China and Washington, DC. How would you describe the art scene in each locale?
MERA: China at this moment is a fascinating art community. The arts programs at universities are overrun with students. People tell us there are more than 10,000 people in Beijing who list their occupation as artist. The art market is enormous, and the auction market is equally active. Sometimes it accelerates the careers of young artists in a problematic way before they have had a chance to develop the support of collectors, curators, and museums around the world. But these artists are bright, talented, hardworking, and incredibly motivated, and give us a unique insight into life in China today.
DC has all the ingredients for a flourishing artist community: plenty of museums, educational facilities, galleries, an emerging art fair, a sophisticated public media, a growing collector community, and tons of tourists. DC is one of the unrecognized potential art centers, and it’s just a matter of time. Ultimately, we hope to open a museum ourselves in the old Randall School site in Southwest.
NEA: Anything you wish I’d asked? And how would you have answered?
DON and MERA: The collection represents a collective process that needs a complete consensus for the acquisition of work. We each continue to bring different perspectives that result in a deeper understanding of the work. For the past 20 years, it has been a three-person process with Mera, Don, and our son, Jason. Our daughter, Jennifer, is now an artist herself. Both our children studied art history. Now, our great delight is that our grandchildren are beginning to show a real interest in the Collection (although at the ages of 10, 8, 6, and 5 they do not yet have a vote).