Inside the Aims and Aspirations of the New Rubell Museum in Washington, D.C.
Exterior view of Rubell Museum DC. Photo by Chi Lam. Courtesy of the Rubell Museum.
After spending more than 50 years building their vast art holdings and laying down permanent roots with the establishment of their Miami museum in 1993, Don and Mera Rubell have expanded their reach once more—this time, in the nation’s capital. Since opening to the public on October 29, 2022, the Washington, D.C., museum is still coming into its identity. Luckily, the Rubells are far from rookies when it comes to establishing longevity in the art world.
The choice of building a second outpost in D.C. as opposed to the usual art hotspots of New York and Los Angeles may come as a surprise to some. And unlike Miami, D.C. is not home to a major circuit of art fairs such as Art Basel or Untitled Art. However, the local art scene is not to be underestimated. “I think this is an exciting time to be in the city. I believe we’re on track to have a few blue chips from within our own local community in a few years,” said D.C.-based art dealer and advisor Chela Mitchell, who founded her namesake Chela Mitchell Gallery. “People are putting on good shows. There are people here doing the work.”
Installation view, from left to right, of works by Kehinde Wiley and El Anatsui in “What’s Going On” at the Rubell Museum DC, 2022. Photo by Chi Lam. Courtesy of the Rubell Museum.
It was, in fact, the capital’s unique art ecosystem that appealed to the Rubells, who spent decades visiting its museums and engaging with its art community. “The city’s arts institutions are among the leading museums in the world, and we are excited to build on its well-established arts ecosystem by spotlighting groundbreaking contemporary art that responds to and reflects our current times,” Mera Rubell said in an interview with Artsy. “The museum provides a platform for artists to speak powerfully about sociopolitical issues less than a mile from the Capitol Building.”
The Rubell Museum made use of its unique position at its inaugural party, which left a lasting impression on attendees, including Mitchell. “If traditional museums are responsible for teaching, I feel like private museums are here to help us feel something,” she said. “And where else in the city could you see, like, Tschabalala Self in conversation with Jonathan Lyndon Chase? That was a special moment.”
Tschabalala Self, Two Girls, 2019. Courtesy of the Rubell Museum.
Lisa Yuskavage, Northview, 2000. Courtesy of the Rubell Museum.
Mitchell also spoke to the significance of private museums and her hopes for what the Rubell Museum will bring to the city. “With a private museum, the intention is collecting. I would like to see the Rubell Museum add works to [its] collection from local artists and to exhibit local artists when it makes sense,” Mitchell added. “Being a part of the Rubell Collection can change an artist’s career trajectory. And there are a lot of artists here that are deserving of that.”
Where the museum’s own collection is concerned, the Rubells have come bearing gifts. With their new institutional presence in D.C., many artworks will be on view in the city for the very first time. “The museum’s exhibitions will pull from our family’s expansive collection of contemporary art, which centers on emerging and underrecognized artists whose work inspires, educates, and provokes,” Mera Rubell said. “By focusing specifically on contemporary art, we’re able to share artworks we’ve collected and exhibited over recent decades alongside, and in dialogue with, works created only months ago.”
Installation view, from left to right, of works by Christopher Myers and Vaughn Spann in “What’s Going On” at the Rubell Museum DC, 2022. Photo by Chi Lam. Courtesy of the Rubell Museum.
Still, there’s a focus on spotlighting the work of artists with strong ties to D.C., such as February James, Jamea Richmond-Edwards, and Cady Noland. Not to mention, the museum has mounted a solo exhibition of paintings by D.C.-based artist Sylvia Snowden. “It is an honor to have my paintings showcased by the Rubells,” wrote 80-year-old Snowden in an email interview with Artsy. “This is an indication of placing emphasis on the art not the age of the artist. It is encouraging, not only for me, but others to continue making art. It is a profound statement by the Rubell Museum—recognition of the art is foremost.”
Sylvia Snowden, installation view at the Rubell Museum DC, 2022. Photo by Chi Lam. Courtesy of the Rubell Museum.
The Rubells are thinking critically not only about the metaphorical space they hope the museum will fill, but also its physical space within the history of southwest D.C. Repurposing the building of what was once Francis L. Cardozo Elementary School, which later became Elizabeth G. Randall Junior High School, the Rubell Museum will carry on the site’s historical commitment to education.
In keeping with efforts to honor its community, the museum’s inaugural group exhibition “What’s Going On”—which borrows its name from the 1971 song and album by D.C.-born, Randall School alumni Marvin Gaye—showcases a series by Keith Haring that was inspired by Gaye’s musical activism. “It was an important part of opening this museum to acknowledge the building’s history and its longstanding importance within the neighborhood,” Mera Rubell explained. “We are thrilled to have been able to support the preservation of this community landmark and usher in its next chapter as a public cultural and educational resource.”
Keith Haring, Untitled (Against All Odds), 1989. Courtesy of the Rubell Museum.
To facilitate this goal, the museum is offering free admission for D.C. residents, and working on partnerships with community-focused individuals and organizations that also see an opportunity to expand the local art landscape. Mera Rubell added, “Our mission is for the museum to serve as a welcoming community hub that inspires new ideas and conversations in southwest D.C.”
With a new influx of art comes a new beginning for the city’s art lovers and art professionals. The Rubell Museum’s arrival has already led many to reexamine the presence of collectors and institutions. And this is perhaps the best resource its entrance can provide: another place to view art and the world.