A $20 million renovation turned a DC school into a modern art museum
“Yesterday we spent all day sitting in each room … figuring out the spirit of each room and thinking about the art,” said Mera, 78, trying to explain how she and Don choose the pieces to be displayed at the Rubell Museum DC opens on October 29th.
“It was five hours,” corrected Don, 81.
“We spent the whole time sitting in these different rooms, trying to figure out what’s going to be hanging in there,” Mera said, not noticing the interruption. “An artwork in this room will feel different than in another room.”
“We made permanent decisions yesterday that will be changed sometime between Friday and Monday,” Don added with a grin.
Don and Mera Rubell will become Washington’s newest museum owners when their second museum — they’ve run a museum in Miami since 1993 — opens at 65 I St. SW with 24 galleries showcasing some of the Miami-based couple’s 7,400 contemporary artworks since 1965 collected.
The $20 million renovation of a building that opened as Cardozo Elementary School in 1906 and became Randall Junior High School in 1927 includes 32,000 square feet of galleries, a bookstore and a café. It will join the Phillips Collection, the Hirshhorn, the National Gallery of Art and the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington’s crowded field of art museums.
A museum in the nation’s capital — not far from Arena Stage and Nationals Park — has been a dream for more than a dozen years, says the couple, who have been married for 58 years. As owners of the Capitol Skyline Hotel one block east of I Street, the Rubells promoted their love of art with art fairs and other events.
“Contemporary art is a catalyst for serious conversation,” Don said, noting that artists grapple with the most pressing issues of our time, including race, immigration, violence and identity. Where better to have these conversations than in the shadow of the Capitol, he added.
“There are ideas trickling down in Washington that may not have reached the rest of the country. We’re going to try to connect art to these ideas,” he continued. “It’s not worth doing if we’re not really influencing people.”
“Contemporary art is deeply relevant to people’s lives,” Mera added. “It’s not like we’re teaching people about art, okay? We are overwhelmed by the art. We are committed to buying it, we are committed to taking care of it. But I would say the biggest learning we get comes from the public coming to see it.”
The Rubells: Art Collectors With Edge Make DC Their Own
On a sultry summer morning, the Rubells spoke—often about each other, as long-married couples do—about their passion for contemporary art, their belief in its power to transform hearts and minds, and their instinctive, if unusual, approach to collecting and curating .
“It’s not so much about theory and science as it is about an emotional connection with the work we’ve collected,” Mera said, detailing her curatorial process. “Because we are privileged to have the work in our own [Miami] Warehouse, we put three in there… and say, ‘Ahh, that doesn’t look good. I think we’re going to have to put it over there, or you know what, I don’t think we’re going to put it in at all.’
“It’s the physicality of the work. but so are the relationships. We create relationships based on some experiments. We’re going to bring work here and see how it feels.”
You don’t sweat the decision because it can always change – and always will change. “The fun is in changing it all the time,” Don said.
In consultation with their son Jason, Rubell Museum director Juan Valadez, and newly appointed Rubell Museum DC director Caitlin Berry, the Rubells select pieces from their collection that explore social and political issues, and many will to be seen publicly for the first time. Kehinde Wiley’s monumental painting “Sleep” will be included in the opening exhibition. The 11ft by 25ft work, based on an 18th-century painting by Jean-Bernard Restout, is one of Wiley’s series that explores black identity by placing contemporary motifs in ancient settings. Wiley painted the Presidential portrait of Barack Obama for the National Portrait Gallery.
Featuring Untitled (Against All Odds), a series of dystopian paintings by Keith Haring, a family friend whom they supported at a critical moment in his career. The series commemorates Steve Rubell, Don’s brother and co-owner of the famous New York disco Studio 54, who died of AIDS in 1989 at the age of 45. “The Shell” by DC-based artist Sylvia Snowden, who studied at Howard University with David Driskell, was acquired for the new museum. The series of paintings focuses on Snowden’s daughter and is the companion piece to “Malik, Farewell ’til We Meet Again”, paintings inspired by the death of her son in 1993 and exhibited at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 2000.
The galleries will also feature Mickalene Thomas’ Mama Bush II, Keep the Home Fires Burnin’ and works by Hank Willis Thomas, Cecily Brown, February James, and Vaughn Spann.
Like their collection, the curating of the Rubells is based on instinct, feelings and curiosity. “You have to stay curious, open and curious,” says Mera about her approach. Don adds, “Our curiosity is really about the new.”
The search for “the new” determined their decisions from the start. The couple has always focused on that emerging artists and when purchasing multiple works. They often used payment plans of $5 or $10 a week when they first started collecting, the couple said. Artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Cindy Sherman, Haring and Thomas benefited from her early support. Don retired as a doctor years ago, and the couple now fund their purchases from their investments.
“We’re not oil barons, we’re not railroad barons, we’re a working-class family. We were very lucky, but we’re still working people,” Mera said.
The new company won’t play second fiddle to the Miami museum they opened in Wynwood in 1993 and moved to Allapatah in 2019, a neighborhood closer to downtown and public transportation. Works by Yayoi Kusama, Cajsa von Zeipel and Reginald O’Neal can be seen on an area of 100,000 square meters. Another exhibit, 30 Americans, has been touring for more than a decade; it will continue until October at the New Britain Museum of American Art.
The Rubells bought the Capitol Skyline Hotel in 2002 and worked to turn it into an arts center. A few years later, the now-defunct Corcoran Gallery of Art had bought the former school with the idea of expanding its educational footprint, a plan the Rubells wholeheartedly supported. When the 2008 economic crash ended that plan, the Rubells teamed up with local developer Telesis in 2010 to bid on a development deal that included renovating the school for its art collection and building apartments on the surrounding property. They added a partner, national developer Lowe Enterprises, to complete the project, which also includes Gallery 64, an adjacent 492-unit apartment building where a fifth of the units are affordable housing.
Randall School’s classrooms and auditorium have been converted into galleries with pristine white walls, exposed brick, arched doorways, and honey-colored timber floors and ceilings.
“The shapes are extraordinary,” says Mera, pointing to the arches, windows, and massive beams in the exposed ceiling. “We wanted to uncover them. They come from trees that are 200 years old,” she said.
The school environment is an important issue, noted Mera. She was a Head Start teacher in New York City and Don was studying medicine when they started collecting art. She says a professor at Duke, where son Jason earned his art history degree, played a role in her decision to share her collection with the public. Jason, now 53, had amassed his own art collection – starting at age 12 with money from his teenage tennis racket job – which he combined with his parents’ larger holdings to create the Rubell Family Collection. Daughter Jennifer, 51, is a New York-based artist who also shares her eye and expertise.
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Berry, the former director of the Cody Gallery at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia, will use her in-depth knowledge of the DC art scene to tailor the museum to local audiences. She will work with Valadez, the Miami museum curator who has worked for the couple for 22 years, to create the museum’s public program.
“I bring a deeper knowledge of DC. All curatorial work is done with DC audiences in mind,” said Berry. “My job is to make this museum a part of the community and to help this community feel welcome.”
The Rubells have not yet decided if they will replicate Miami’s artist-in-residence program, which began in 2019, has brought critical visibility to artists such as Lucy Dodd, Sterling Ruby and Oscar Murillo. They are still debating the number and type of public and educational programs, they said.
“Contemporary art can really change lives, especially the lives of teenagers, because art has this extraordinary way of giving you a vision of possibility,” Mera said. “Art has changed our lives. If we are successful, art can change other people’s lives.”
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