The Rubells: Art collectors with edge make D.C. their own

September 30, 2011

The part of Miami where Mera and Donald Rubell put their museum and home was a dangerous, ramshackle section of abandoned warehouses and rundown residences, with buildings still scarred by the 1980 race riots and streets that even the police were wary of entering.

The Rubells hit Miami 19 years ago. Today, their Wynwood neighborhood is ablaze with color, with murals, art galleries, cafes and top-shelf eateries luring hipsters and big spenders alike. The Rubells’ family museum — housed in a former Drug Enforcement Agency warehouse where the cocaine, cash and Kalashnikovs that spelled Miami Vice were once stored — was a major catalyst of the makeover.

The part of Washington where Mera and Donald Rubell intend to put their second contemporary art museum and a new residential-retail complex was a dangerous, ramshackle area where 1960s urban renewal had left a strange jumble of industrial buildings, public housing projects and apartments cut off from the rest of the city by an elevated highway.

The Rubells hit Washington nine years ago. They bought a 1962 motor hotel by the highway, a seedy Best Western where hookers and druggies claimed the sidewalks and the crowd inside wasn’t much more savory.

Today, the Capitol Skyline Hotel boasts a lobby full of contemporary art and furniture, even a chair you’re not allowed to sit on (it’s a Frank Gehry!). The pool has become a gathering spot for the District’s young arts, music and social crowds. And if the Rubells’ next dream comes true — and their dreams usually do — the abandoned public school across the street will soon be transformed by an arts and commercial development that will do for Southwest Washington what the family’s arrival did for Miami’s Wynwood.

Southwest, despite the remade Arena Stage, the new ballpark and thousands of new apartments north of the stadium, remains very much a work in progress, which is what brings Mera Rubell to town a couple of times a month. (Lately, she’s been here even more than usual: Last week, she hosted an art fair at the Skyline that filled four floors with paintings, sculpture and video from around the world. And a show drawn entirely from the Rubell family collection, “30 Americans,” opens at the Corcoran Gallery of Art this weekend and runs through February.)

Decked out in Panama hat, black cape, black capris and black booties, Mera walks through the Skyline’s lobby as if she owned the place. (She and Donald bought it for $7.2 million in 2002; today, the District assesses it at $40.3 million.)

She asks guests in the check-in queue where they’re from, then tells them about the art she donated to their local museum. At the pool, she sees a party being set up for a black fraternity group and calls her manager: “I don’t like when we rent out to any group that’s all one thing,” she warns. “I forbid white parties, I forbid black parties at the pool. It’s got to be everyone together. I want people to see that this is where you come to be with all kinds of people.”

Walk along some of Southwest’s scruffiest streets with Rubell, and she sees beauty and possibility in the same apartment buildings that many D.C. residents dismiss as barren. Here’s one designed by Morris Lapidus, the Miami architect most famous for his beach-kitsch Fontainebleau Hotel. Turns out he also drew the Skyline. And here’s a building with swooping aluminum roofs and doors: “Amazing,” Mera says. “If people only knew what was here. . . .”

What’s here on I Street SW is the city’s old Randall Junior High School, which closed in 1978 and later became a homeless shelter and studio space for artists. It has been boarded up since 2006, when the Corcoran Gallery of Art bought it from the District for $6.2 million. The museum planned to move its College of Art into the building, but the economy went south. Last year, when the Rubells offered to make the Corcoran whole, the museum grabbed the deal.

The Rubells are 50-50 partners with Telesis, a D.C. developer that builds mixed-income and subsidized housing such as the Ellen Wilson homes on Capitol Hill and Paradise at Parkside in Northeast. They plan to put the Rubell museum in the old schoolhouse, restaurants in the school’s gym, and apartments and perhaps a hotel in new structures. Their architect is Bing Thom, the Canadian who designed Arena Stage’s iconic new setting.

“We want to create a lot of life here,” Mera says. “We want to make an important place. This city does a crappy job of selling itself. It’s amazing that people come here because the promotion is so awful. They just show men in suits in front of marble buildings. This could be the social hearth of the country. It’s enticing to come to a desert and do something big.”

A desert. Washington.

Donald hears about that and says, “Mera, watch what you say.”

Artists in Washington hear it and say: Who is this person? Who does she think she is?

Made in Miami

If not a desert, Miami Beach’s South Beach was something of a slum when the Rubells arrived from Manhattan in the early ’90s. The area was still suffering from the crime wave that Fidel Castro helped unleash on the city by dumping Cuba’s prisoners onto boats to South Florida. The refugees from the Northeast who had built the neighborhood as their retirement community were dying or fleeing up the coast. The first couple of glorious old Art Deco hotels had been restored, but the gold rush had not yet happened.

When the Rubells’ son, Jason, moved to South Florida to open a gallery, his mother fell in love with the place and its possibilities. “It was like every day you could have an idea and execute on it,” she says. “You could never do that in New York.”

One day, a lawyer Donald knew called up to say he had a client, a hotelier who was going to jail at 8 the next morning. If the Rubells could buy the place that night, they could have it for, ahem, a steal.

It was the Greenview, their first hotel, a 40-room Art Deco gem. They bought it, fixed it up, flipped it. Then an office building, distress priced at a few hundred grand — renovated, marketed, sold. Then they found the Albion Hotel, a Deco delight. They lovingly restored it and manage it still. Soon Donald was commuting on weekends from New York, where he’d been a gynecologist for nearly three decades.

Meanwhile, their art collection was growing so large that they had storage units across New York. They started looking for warehouses in Miami. That’s when they found the DEA facility. It still had closets for cocaine and guns, evidence kept for use in trials. The Rubells bought the place for less than the cost of a one-bedroom condo in Manhattan. They intended to turn it into a museum. Their children feared for their parents’ lives — there’s a major drug dealer next door, they warned.

So the Rubells bought that house, tore it down and built their own home, which is now connected to their museum by a secret doorway behind the research library.

“You go where others won’t,” Mera says, “or it’s not an ad­ven­ture.”

Art on the fly

Mera, 68, and Donald, 71, return from China, where they zipped around to 40 artists’ studios in two weeks. Donald heads home to Miami to catch up on hotel business. Mera flies to Washington to meet with architects and visit artists. Forty-eight hours later, she’s off to California for meetings with curators, gallerists and more artists.

They travel constantly, both dressed in black, head to toe. They visit new artists’ studios for an hour or two, then decide, sometimes on the spot, sometimes in bed the next morning, whether to buy. If they do, they’ll probably take a big batch of works, maybe everything the artist has.

In Washington, Mera visits 36 studios in 36 hours. “What have you got?” she asks. Show me what you did years ago. Show me everything.

The Rubells’ frenetic lives lead some people to view them as less than serious. It’s an impression the couple is not entirely eager to quash: Their museum is home to an enormous research library, they routinely appear in art journal compilations of the top 100 or 200 collectors in the world, and fabulously wealthy collectors regularly offer them millions for some of their holdings. But Mera and Donald like to operate a bit below the radar, zipping into studios in rural China or a Capitol Hill alley to discover artists no one else knows. They are certainly well off and routinely spend five-figure sums on pieces, but they say they have neither the means nor the interest to compete with hedge-fund billionaires who bid for pieces selling in the millions.

When the couple announced plans to build a D.C. museum, some local artists saw them as “interlopers,” says Kriston Capps, a D.C. art critic. “They felt a little territorial when someone comes from the outside with their own perspective. Will they really support local artists? Are they doing this for the art or to support their hotel?”

When Mera announced that she would host an art fair at the Skyline in September — the (e)merge Art Fair drew capacity crowds last weekend — some artists welcomed a new venue to show their wares. Others, such as Alex Ventura, who came to Washington to go to law school and ended up organizing performance art, reacted by organizing a counter-fair, called “But Is It Art?”

If the District is going to be recognized as a hotbed of contemporary art, Ventura wants that to be a result of work by artists who live and work here, not because an outsider creates another big institution.

“We already have a million art institutions,” he says. “Does that really do anything to support the local art community? The Rubells talk about trying to invent D.C. as a cultural tourism destination. It just feels disingenuous.”

Not to Leigh Conner, whose Northeast gallery has become a regular stop on Mera’s Washington circuit. The city has an art culture of its own — and an unusually strong concentration of well-educated, affluent buyers — but it needs to get the word out that “coolness doesn’t just trickle down from New York. Some of it trickles up from here,” Conner says, “and the Rubells’ enthusiasm will help raise the visibility of artists here. They are a force of nature.”

Sarah Newman, the Corcoran curator who designed the Rubells’ “30 Americans” show, admires how the couple support artists but notes that Washington’s art scene “does not need to be saved by anyone. It hasn’t quite blossomed yet, but there are a lot of very culturally engaged young people here and a lot of artists. Mera has a very New York sensibility — very aggressive in a warm way. They have an endless appetite for seeing new things, and there’s certainly room for that here.”

The Rubells expect skepticism. “People will be suspicious,” Donald says. “That’s natural. But they’ll see we’re not here to promote ourselves.”

Rather, they want to be evangelists for the cutting edge, including work too edgy for the Hirshhorn, the Smithsonian’s museum for the art of now. “Washington is absolutely on the cusp when it comes to contemporary art,” he says, “but the museums tend to be very conservative, very traditional.”

Mera interrupts to suggest that their D.C. museum may expand beyond the family’s holdings.

“Really?” Donald says, raising a very skeptical eyebrow.

Mera shoots him a glare: “We don’t have consensus on that yet.” End of topic.

But the questions persist. D.C. artists want to know if the Rubells’ museum will really bring them greater notice or just perpetuate the Rubell brand.

Avant-garde collectors

Unlike most major collectors, the Rubells don’t usually buy individual works. Nor do they buy through auction catalogues. They visit and buy artists. Their connection is as much with the artist as with the art.

At the Rubells’ Miami museum, director Juan Roselione-Valadez supervises the hanging of four enormous canvasses for their next show. The paintings arrived as a complete surprise to the Rubells, who had simply shown the artist the space, a vast room with a 19-foot ceiling, and let him do his thing. Not how your average museum does business.

The Rubells’ tastes reveal a penchant for the provocative, including highly explicit work. “They’re interested in very provocative material, in exploring really raw subjects,” says Newman, the Corcoran’s curator of contemporary art.

The Rubells say they are drawn not to particular subjects but to the novel, to work that makes you see the world in fresh ways.

Although neither of them grew up knowing any art collectors, the germ of their obsession was always there. Mera’s father was an artist of sorts, an immigrant from Poland who found work as a laborer but lived for weekends, when he’d take the subway from Brooklyn to set up an easel in Central Park, drawing portraits for a few dollars each.

Donald had no background in art; rather, he had an epiphany in college at Cornell, where a professor showed him Marcel Duchamps’ “Fountain,” an ordinary manufactured urinal that he turned into an object of art simply by presenting it as such.

“I’d always thought art was a painting on a wall,” Donald says. “Suddenly, I realized that art was an idea. I thought it was the most profound thing I’d ever seen.”

Donald, whose father was a postman who became a tennis pro, was born a collector — baseball cards, bottle tops, stamps, kachina dolls. But Mera, who came to America at 13 after a childhood in refugee camps and temporary stays in Germany, Russia and Israel, was brought up to be wary of possessions. Indeed, her parents taught her that they can kill you. In Poland during World War II, her father returned from the front to warn friends and family to flee before the Nazis arrived. Those who had a lot of possessions refused, arguing that they needed to defend their homes. They died.

The Rubells’ collection started soon after they married 47 years ago. Although they had no money, they scouted the city, meeting budding artists in basement studios, buying paintings for $100 or less, whatever they could save while Donald was in medical school and Mera was teaching in a Head Start program. They bought Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Jeff Koons — young struggling artists who later became big names, their works selling for millions.

Donald’s parents and his older brother Steve — the same Steve Rubell who became an icon of the disco era by founding Studio 54 with Ian Schrager — discouraged Donald and Mera from spending so much on art. When Steve died in 1989, leaving his hotel fortune to his brother, money was no longer an issue. But the Rubells had by then concluded that they would never be like high-end collectors who bid for the most expensive works. Their thrill was in discovering the new.

The making of a show

Every morning in bed, their debates about art go on for one, two, even three hours. Pleasant intellectual banter sometimes, and sometimes intense argument over taste and dollars.

“When it gets bad, it gets formal,” Mera says. The couple will meet with son Jason and his wife, Michelle, to hash out a consensus — buy or pass. (Daughter Jennifer is an artist in New York, where she specializes in installations made of food, such as 1,521 doughnuts hanging on a wall, or a 2009 event at the National Portrait Gallery where guests sat at a long table lined with baguettes. It was called the Reconciliation Dinner.)

Half a century of new art means the collection now has a history of its own, and the Rubells regularly review their holdings with their professional staff, discovering connections — references by new artists to older works in the collection, pieces that work well together in one room or one show.

That’s how “30 Americans” came to be. The Rubells never set out to collect black artists, but they realized they had not only some of today’s most exciting African American artists but also works by those artists’ mentors and heroes.

But a show of black artists by a white collector? Wouldn’t that raise questions of authenticity? The Rubells asked the artists, some of whom did express concern about an all-black show ghettoizing their work. Then came Barack Obama.

Obama’s success “changed the attitude of the artists,” Donald says. “Obama gave them the confidence to say, ‘This is my work and I don’t need the approval of a white audience. It stands on its own.’ ”

Still, some artists worried that their patrons would be called arrogant for presuming to know best about black art. “Everyone warned us not to do the show,” Mera says. “White people doing a black show! But there are no grand statements or themes here; we simply present the work we chose to collect.”

The show demonstrates a change over time. The earlier pieces overtly confront racism; later works display, at least in the Rubells’ view, a growing confidence and comfort that younger artists feel about their place in U.S. society.

But another obstacle remained: Major museums generally shy away from exhibitions exclusively devoted to a single private collector, on the theory that the museum’s imprimatur, which often vastly increases the value of a piece, could encourage collectors to sell off works at massive profits.

The Rubells are well inoculated against such suspicion because in half a century, they have sold only about a dozen of their more than 5,000 works. But they concede that the ethical hesi­ta­tion is justified. “It’s a valid concern, and there are collectors who have spun off pieces like that,” Mera says. “But we’re in a time when there are collectors who just don’t do that. And if museums have the courage to change, the public gets to see work that they wouldn’t otherwise see.”

Another controversy around “30 Americans” stems from the close proximity of the show to the Rubells’ purchase of the Randall property. The idea that the Corcoran might be rewarding the Rubells for taking a financial albatross off its back is not a story line either party wants associated with the new show.

The timing of the decisions — the Corcoran had been working on the “30 Americans” show long before the Randall sale came up — and the fact that the Rubells had to bid against several other parties to get the Randall school support the argument that the two events’ temporal connection is coincidental.

In part to make clear that they’re not usurping the curator’s role, the Rubells have kept away from the Corcoran, where Newman has reconceived their show, choosing different themes and works than the family had selected in Miami.

But Mera has been in town almost weekly, trying to persuade bankers that a new hotel in the shadow of Interstate 395 could really make money as well as incubate a new art scene. “We’re going to reintroduce Washington to Southwest,” Mera says. “The stepchild of Washington is coming home.” She pauses. She likes the sound of that.

Donald emits a slight groan. She shoots him a look. And he says, “I’d just like to note that I am not given to such grandiose statements.”

Marc Fisher, a senior editor, writes about most anything. He’s been The Post’s enterprise editor, local columnist and Berlin bureau chief, and he’s covered politics, education, pop culture, and much else in three decades on the Metro, Style, National and Foreign desks.
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