How Mega-Collectors Don and Mera Rubell Keep Finding New Artists to Support
Don and Mera Rubell with Keith Haring, 1989. Courtesy of the Rubell Museum, Miami.
When a young Keith Haring wanted to reassure his parents that he could make it as an artist in New York, he got them a dinner invitation at the home of Don and Mera Rubell. This was in 1982, and Haring was about to have his first high-profile solo exhibition, at Tony Shafrazi Gallery.
The contemporary art–collecting couple had bought Haring’s cartoonish and street-inspired artwork two years earlier, Mera Rubell said, when he was still unknown, from a do-it-yourself show at Club 57—a makeshift art venue in the basement of a Polish church at 57 St. Mark’s Place. “He said, ‘Can I please bring my parents over to your house right after the [Shafrazi] opening?’” Mera recalled. Haring wanted his dad, in particular, to see his work hanging in the Rubells’ Upper East Side townhouse, as proof that his art career was going places. “The family always remembered that first spaghetti meal they had with us,” Mera said of the dinner she ultimately hosted. “That gave them confidence that their son wouldn’t be, like, a loser artist.”
Keith Haring, Untitled, 1982. © Keith Haring Foundation.
Don and Mera Rubell have likely relieved a lot of anxious parents in their five-plus decades of acquiring contemporary art by emerging artists. The couple—who have amassed a renowned collection of roughly 7,200 works by over 1,000 artists (and counting), housed in a publicly accessible museum in their adopted city of Miami—are famous for identifying promising artists very early on and buying multiple works at once.
The Rubells were among the first to purchase works by Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Mickalene Thomas, among others. The pair bought their first Jeff Koons sculpture, New Hoover Deluxe Rug Shampooer (1979), from a show he independently mounted across the street from luxury department store Barneys. They had wanted to buy three pieces, but couldn’t face the hassle of carrying them all home, so just got the one.
Jeff Koons, New Hoover Deluxe Rug Shampooer, 1979. © Jeff Koons Studio.
Those artists, and many others in the vast Rubell collection, are now revered as blue-chip. In fact, the Rubells often loan entire exhibitions from their collection to museums, including the “30 Americans” show of works by African American artists that recently opened at Philadelphia’s Barnes Foundation, after traveling to multiple venues for the better part of a decade. The show features major works by artists represented in the Rubells’ collection, including Kehinde Wiley, Robert Colescott, Lorna Simpson, and Hank Willis Thomas.
But Don and Mera didn’t set out to be mega-collectors of museum-caliber pieces when they first started buying art in 1964 as newlyweds. Don, an obstetrician by profession, was then in medical school; Mera was the breadwinner, as a preschool teacher earning $100 a week. They decided to spend a monthly budget of $25 buying art—usually from artists whose studios they had visited, and very often on an installment payment plan.
Kehinde Wiley Equestrian Portrait of the Count Duke Olivares, 2005. Courtesy of Rubell Family Collection, Miami.
The couple’s weekend pastime was trekking around New York neighborhoods where artists had converted empty retail storefronts into live-in studio spaces. “We came to understand how valuable and extraordinary it was to spend time in an artist’s studio,” Mera said of that period. “We learned that there’s so much behind the artwork, and the more you know about the artist and the work, the more meaningful it is.”
Don and Mera—who do not use art advisers and have no formal training in art—continue to rely on studio visits when deciding whether or not to invest in an emerging talent. “Spending time in the studio is not about going shopping,” Mera explained. “If you’re going to collect young art, the more you know about an artist—because there isn’t all that much history, and there’s no book that tells you; you don’t know the future of a talented person you meet, you just have to trust your intuition—and the more you know about an artist and the more time you spend with them and the work, the more you can trust getting involved with the artist.”
Polaroid for portraits of Mera and Don Rubell by Thomas Ruff, 1988. Courtesy of the Rubell Museum, Miami.
All of these studio visits have contributed to a collection that offers a sweeping view of the art of the past half-century. It encompasses movements that have yet to be classified, media that range from paintings to vacuum cleaners, and works made by artists from China to the United States. Instead of being thematically connected or focused on a particular style, the collection is tied together by the Rubells’ belief in the new.
“There’s a lot of embarrassment connected with collecting contemporary art. Well, now it’s a little more popular, but there was a time when people would come into the house and either not say a word about the art or use words like, ‘Oh, interesting,’” Mera said. “To collect young art takes a degree of not being afraid of other people’s [opinions]. Believing in your eye, believing in what you’re learning, and saying, ‘Does this art do something for me? How is this enlarging my life?’ That’s what you have to ask yourself.”
Jason Rubell, Haring, and Don Rubell (from left) at Haring’s opening at the Leo Castelli Gallery, New York, 1985. Courtesy of the Rubell Museum, Miami.
Just as the Rubells are risk-takers in their art-buying habits, they gambled when they left New York (a city that Mera refers to as “a petri dish of talent”) for Miami in the early 1990s. The beachside Floridian city was by no means a visual art hub at the time, but the Rubells’ presence helped transform it.
While the family’s hotel business restored a few Art Deco buildings in the city, the couple also bought a 40,000-square-foot former Drug Enforcement Administration drug-and-weapon-confiscation warehouse to house and exhibit their collection, opening the Rubell Family Collection in 1993. Mera was also involved in importing the influential Art Basel fair to Miami, convincing the city’s mayor to welcome the event and inviting the Art Basel board to scope out Miami. The fair ultimately had its Miami Beach debut in 2002.
Jean-Michel Basquiat, Bird On Money, 1981. Courtesy of Rubell Family Collection, Miami.
This December, the Rubells will again make their mark on the city’s art scene by moving their collection to a larger venue in Miami’s Allapattah neighborhood. The 100,000-square-foot industrial space, rebranded as the Rubell Museum, will have enough galleries to install both long-term and temporary exhibitions. The inaugural show will be a broad look at international contemporary art over the past 50 years, featuring some 300 works by over 100 artists, including Ai Weiwei, Carrie Mae Weems, Anselm Kiefer, Barbara Kruger, and even very recently acquired artists, such as Allison Zuckerman.
That last part is especially important to the Rubells, since they want their museum to be a place where youngsters can learn about young art. When the couple’s two children, Jennifer (an artist) and Jason (an active partner in managing the family’s collection), studied art history in college, they learned from outdated slides and textbooks that had little connection to the art being made at the time. Contemporary art can’t be studied if it can’t be seen, and Mera said she herself constantly learns from looking at the collection.
Mera and Don Rubell in front of Kerstin Brätsch, When You See Me Again It Wont Be Me, 2010. Photo by Chi Lam.
“Everything that we’ve ever collected—and keep in mind that we keep pretty much everything that we collect—all that work continues to inform us,” she added.
And no less importantly, it encourages young artists to keep making work. Just as Haring wanted his parents to witness his radiant break-dancers boogying in the Rubell townhouse before he had achieved any sort of fame, Don and Mera have now filled that role for many as-yet-undiscovered artists. When Richard Prince went to an after-party at the Rubells’ following a 1980s Whitney Museum biennial, “It was the first time I’d ever seen anything of mine hung on someone else’s wall,” he said. “They got it. And in more ways than one.”
“And seeing all the art from my generation on their walls,” Prince continued. “They were the first to do anything like that. Early ’80s. Stuff that had been made only a couple of years before. Up-to-date doesn’t begin to describe it. They were forward and fierce in their choices, but their decisions were tempered by four romantic eyes.”