Art Market

Mera Rubell Shares 5 Tips for New Collectors

Karen Chernick
Dec 4, 2019 3:53PM

Mera and Don Rubell in front of Kerstin Brätsch, When You See Me Again It Wont Be Me, from the series “Broadwaybratsch/Corporate Abstraction,” 2010. Photo by Chi Lam.

Richard Prince, New England Nurse, 2002. © Richard Prince. Courtesy of the Rubell Museum.

If you’ve caught the art-collecting bug, the truth is that you may never fully recover. Just look at mega-collecting couple Don and Mera Rubell, who started buying art innocently enough as broke youngsters in the 1960s. They opened a 100,000-square-foot museum showcasing their extensive contemporary art collection this week—timed to coincide with the Art Basel in Miami Beach fair—and revealed plans to open another museum in Washington, D.C. There was no cure for their art addiction, and there may not be one for yours, either. But you can heed their advice about how to manage your condition responsibly.


“For centuries it was the pope, it was the king, it was the queen that had accessibility to the artists. Today, we have access to talent,” said Mera Rubell. “You, too, can have an original work of art. That’s a big, big privilege, that’s a big deal. I think that’s amazing. And if that piece that you select enlarges your life—maybe it’s just beautiful, beauty is good enough—but maybe it digs deeper into who you are and what you are, and maybe it teaches you something. Which a lot of art does.”

The first artwork the Rubells ever bought was by Ira Kaufman, an Irish artist. If you’ve never heard of Kaufman, you’re not alone. He was never quite as successful as some of the other artists they’ve collected as emerging talents over the years, such as Takashi Murakami, Kerry James Marshall, Sarah Lucas, Christian Boltanski, Louise Lawler, and Glenn Ligon. There’s been a learning curve in the Rubells’ 50-plus years of collecting. Here are some of Mera’s practical shortcuts to give you a head start.

Don’t be shy about asking for a payment plan

Payment plans are helpful (and prudent) when you’re starting out, and the Rubells’ collection likely wouldn’t have come together if they hadn’t been able to pay month-to-month. “Don’t be embarrassed to ask for a payment plan,” Mera said. “Be responsible.”

The couple used monthly installments to make one of their first art purchases in the mid-1960s, upon the suggestion of an artist selling paintings directly from his storefront studio. He could tell the Rubells liked his work, but something was holding them back. “Well, what about a payment plan?” Mera recalled the artist suggesting, offering a solution that the Rubells might have been too timid to ask for themselves then. The Rubells aren’t shy anymore, and have regularly bought art this way ever since.

“We still buy on a payment plan very often, if a piece is beyond our financial means at the moment,” Mera added.

Read more

View of the Rubell Museum library, and Keith Haring, Untitled, 1981. Photo by Nicholas Venezia. Courtesy of Selldorf Architects.

There’s always more to learn, especially about brand-new contemporary art. The Rubells stay up to date by making reading an intrinsic part of their collecting routine. They have subscribed to 10 art magazines, and their museum is stocked with a library of over 40,000 volumes on contemporary art they’ve amassed over the years.

“Read more,” said Mera. “Subscribe to magazines.” And if you don’t have room for a massive library like the Rubells, subscribing to online publications is a great alternative.

Build relationships with local art dealers

A good place to start your collection is right at your local gallery. Local art dealers can help steer you toward promising neighborhood talents that are more affordable. These connections are meaningful as you grow your collection, and can help to anchor you even as your network becomes more global.

“Get relationships with galleries the same age as you,” Mera said. “Grow with the galleries, they can take you places. Young galleries, local galleries.”

Join a museum

Don Rubell with Kehinde Wiley Sleep, 2008, and Keith Haring, Untitled, 1981, at the Rubell Museum. Photo by Nicholas Venezia, Courtesy of Selldorf Architects.

Just as important as getting to know your local dealers is getting acquainted with your regional art museum. “Don’t underestimate what museums can teach you,” Mera said. Even if you have a solid art background, there’s always a new angle on the conventional art-historical canon, new research, or a new artist to learn about through exhibitions, lectures, or other museum-led programming.

“Join a museum, join several museums,” she added. “All museums have lectures; they’re very, very meaningful. Get to know the curators, get to know the director.” Getting informal feedback from a museum professional on an artist whose work you’re considering buying may help you reach a decision about committing to that payment plan.

Prioritize the money you have, even if it’s not much

Even after doing the legwork, and despite the urge to collect, you may still find it hard to justify buying original art on, for example, a young person’s entry-level salary. The Rubells started their collection on a monthly budget of $25, and their families told them it was nuts to be spending that much of their meager income on art. “It is about prioritizing money. So maybe you don’t buy the fancy shoes that year, you know?” Mera said, referencing the need to play budgetary Tetris when cash flows are tight.

“If art collecting becomes your priority, you won’t need to see it as a sacrifice, because how can you compare owning an original work of art to having the fancy whatever-it-is?” she added. “Maybe you’ll give up soda. We waste a lot of money on stuff.”

Collectors can never afford to buy absolutely everything they’d like to, anyway, so making tough decisions about your spending is key. “If you’re a young collector with limited funds,” Mera said, “you have to really examine what makes your life more meaningful—what makes your blood boil, what turns you on.”

Karen Chernick