The renovation of a Southwest Washington hotel is unexpectedly affecting the local art community. That's because the owners are big-time collectors with an eye for contemporary art and a bank book to pay for it.
Don and Mera Rubell and their adult children Jason and Jennifer, who oversee the Rubell Family Collection in Miami, plan to show a sampling of the family's artworks at their Best Western Capitol Skyline property by year's end. Mera Rubell is already making the rounds of area museums on visits to oversee the renovation and just purchased a piece at the Washington Project for the Arts\Corcoran's recent auction.
"It's fun to engage with a whole new contemporary art scene," Rubell says. "There's much more activity than I realized."
The Rubell Family Collection is an extensive survey of art from the 1960s to the present -- with works by Keith Haring, Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons and Cindy Sherman, among others -- located in a 32,000-square-foot warehouse once used by the Drug Enforcement Administration for seized goods. Only about 2 percent of a total 6,000 pieces can be on view at one time.
Mark Coetzee, the director of the collection, says portions of it will be exhibited in a small -- say, 1,600-square-foot -- space adjacent to the hotel. They will do three-month shows and hope to mount the first before the end of the year.
"We will bring work up from the permanent collection that hasn't been seen in D.C.," Coetzee says.
In addition to exhibiting work, Mera Rubell and Coetzee have discussed related programming in the "project space" with Annie Adjchavanich, the director of WPA\C, which would coordinate lectures, films and performances.
"The idea is that we want to develop some kind of debate -- contribute to the conversation locally," Coetzee says. That could mean getting artists who speak at the Miami collection to agree to travel here for a second lecture. Or perhaps local artists could get exposure in Miami.
That will be the case for Dan Steinhilber.
During an advance walk-through to see works in the WPA\C's annual auction a couple weeks ago, Rubell saw a centerpiece Steinhilber created for the pre-bidding dinner.
Steinhilber had taken 10 foam carryout containers -- the square kind that open like a clamshell -- and stacked them upside down. He rotated alternating ones 180 degrees. No glue or anything else.
Steinhilber says he had the dinner in mind when he made it.
"It sort of puts you in the present tense," he says. "There's the proposition that someone could use it."
Of course, no one was scooping leftovers into the containers at the dinner late last month. The sculpture was at gallery owner Cheryl Numark's table. Not coincidentally, she recently started representing Steinhilber, who wasn't with a gallery but has been showing regularly in the area.
"I haven't seen such an impressive body of work from someone his age in town," Numark says. The centerpiece was "a teaser for what his work is usually like."
Steinhilber, 30, is from Oshkosh, Wis., and graduated last year with an MFA from American University and teaches part time at George Mason University. Most of his pieces are much larger than the centerpiece, such as a seven-foot cube of clear plastic takeout containers filled with colored water.
"He tends to aggregate materials -- pull them together into something greater than the sum of its parts," Numark says.
"It's not that it's a new invention in that category" of found-object art, she says. "It feels extremely individual nevertheless."
Can't anyone stack takeout containers?
Perhaps, but Steinhilber came up with the idea.
"The mind of the artist is as valid as his hand," Rubell says. "The most powerful thing in art for me is that it's a language that the artist talks."
The Rubells are known for buying pieces by artists who haven't made it -- yet. They also focus on developing a comprehensive body of each artist's work rather than snatching up art by as many artists as they can.
Numark expects to start showing Steinhilber's work this summer when she opens a larger, street-front space on the 600 block of E Street NW.
"It's salable," Numark says of conceptual pieces. "The art scene here is growing and becoming more contemporary-art-world savvy."
Rubell couldn't attend the WPA\C dinner and auction, so she told Adjchavanich to bid $300 for her. Bidding started at $100 for the centerpiece, but was at $500 just before closing. Adjchavanich called Rubell. She raised the bid to $550 and won.
Rubell doesn't know when the piece will go on view in Miami, but she says, "We try to always show the latest works that we buy."
"I was happy that it was purchased by the Rubell Collection," says Steinhilber. "It's not a major work of art at all, but it's exciting."
Particularly exciting if they buy more.