The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

This new museum is a world away from D.C. stereotypes

The Rubell Museum DC, which opened Oct. 29, offers a robust critique of American hypocrisy in its first exhibition

The facade of the Rubell Museum DC. (Chi Lam)

People from outside of Washington, especially journalists, are obsessed with proximity to the U.S. Capitol. A crime, no matter how random, that happens “in the shadow of the Capitol” is particularly lurid. Any social dysfunction “within a mile” or “five miles” of the Capitol, even dysfunction that is endemic to cities across the globe, is an egregious sign of moral collapse.

But perhaps it does matter that the new Rubell Museum DC, a splendid, professional and engaging addition to the city’s art scene, is “less than a mile” from the People’s House. The former Randall Junior High School, a historically Black public school in Southwest Washington, has been transformed into a 32,000-square-foot museum building, with ample, well-lit and congenial galleries. The 1906 building is surrounded by a synoptic history lesson in failed urban design, which means the Rubell’s art is seen in an ethical context: Choices matter, and we inhabit a world that reflects those choices.

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Just to the north of the museum is the Southeast Freeway, a massive, pollution-spewing gash to the city fabric that has isolated the southwest quadrant from the city center for decades. Nearby is the District’s main automobile inspection station, among several similar facilities that are land-hungry eyesores blotting the urban margins. And what is missing — the long-demolished historic neighborhoods that were erased by mid-century urban-renewal schemes — is just as salient, and sad.

The Rubell Museum, which opened its doors Oct. 29, is a satellite of art collectors Don and Mera Rubell’s larger contemporary art space in Miami, founded in 1993 and expanded over the years, including in 2019, when it moved to a new, 100,000-square-foot exhibit space with a library, bookstore, restaurant and performance area. The Rubells are significant players in the contemporary art world, renowned not so much for their riches as for their judgment, particularly when it comes to championing young and rising artists.

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The museum’s inaugural exhibition, titled “What’s Going On” after the 1971 album by Marvin Gaye (a student at Randall in the 1950s), includes more than 190 works by 50 artists. Among them is Keith Haring’s 1989 “Untitled (Against All Odds),” a series of often macabre drawings inspired by Gaye’s lyrics. The Haring series, dedicated to Steve Rubell (the brother of Don Rubell and nightclub impresario who died in 1989), occupies a full gallery, one of several spaces devoted to a single installation or work in series. These more focused rooms are among the highlights of the exhibition.

Haring’s aesthetic — bold, clear, political and passionate — recurs throughout the museum. The space, renovated by Beyer Blinder Belle, includes a bright and open lobby (an addition to the front of the building), a large introductory gallery (formerly the school’s auditorium), and smaller but ample galleries stacked on three floors, with well-lit corner spaces containing the larger works and interstitial galleries devoted to smaller material.

The Rubells’ taste tends to clarity, and the works chosen from their larger collection (which includes more than 7,000 pieces) are generally politically and socially conscious and speak in idioms that are straightforward though not simple-minded. An entire gallery is devoted to Hank Willis Thomas’s “Unbranded” series, a consistently smart and provocative dissection of images of Black people and culture exploited by the advertising industry. Another features the sculpture and assemblage of Josh Kline, indicting the disposability of capitalism, especially its disregard for labor, which it treats as a limitless and expendable commodity.

Most of the work falls into what might be called the “vanitas” mode of contemporary art, modern analogues to Renaissance paintings reminding viewers that death and judgment are inevitable and supersede pleasure and worldly pursuits. The modern vanitas also skewers the superficial and worldly, focusing on darker truths, insidious causes and structural failures.

The iconic covered wagon, once a symbol of national expansion and cultural ambition, becomes sculpture in Matthew Day Jackson’s 2005-2006 “Chariot (The Day After the End of Days),” repurposed as a weapon of war, dispossession and genocide. In Leonard Drew’s “(Untitled #25),” monumental stacks of cotton are placed in the center of the room, a superfluity of raw material, and a reminder of the raw cruelty of the slave-driven cotton-and-textile trade that enriched and immiserated millions of people, according to their race and privilege.

The tone is serious, but not dispiriting. Smaller, more self-contained pieces pursue other themes, sometimes with humor and whimsy. Huang Yong Ping’s ceramic urns are also vanitas pieces — we look into their dark interior to find death preserved in the form of taxidermy animals — but make a game of the darker process of seeking beyond outward appearances to find the truth. Midas, patron saint of American culture, has been unleashed to comic effect in a room full of trash and architectural odds and ends in John Miller’s 2007 installation “A Refusal to Accept Limits.”

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The new museum gets almost all the intangibles of a museum experience right: the pacing, the juxtapositions, the flow, the light. Amid the sobering politics are moments of radiance and poetry. The building details — including the preservation of arched brick doorways — were handled with grace and taste by architect Hany Hassan. A patch of preserved terrazzo floor on a stair landing is a nice touch, reminding visitors not just of the building’s prior use, but also of how thoroughly we have squandered the investments that were once made in the public realm.

Right from the start, the Rubell Museum DC has found its substantial niche in the capital area’s museum ecosystem. It complements the private Glenstone Museum in Potomac, Md., by focusing on a wider range of artists, at varying stages in their careers. It has a freer hand to be edgy and provocative than the museums under the Smithsonian aegis, or the National Gallery. And it is local without being provincial, with free admission for D.C. residents, and a number of artists born or working in the city are among those in its inaugural exhibition. If you voted with the majority in any recent D.C. election, you are likely amenable to the museum’s basic political thrust.

There is real symbolic importance to filling out that ecosystem. While the Rubell caters to visitors — it wants to offer a valuable experience — it doesn’t have the usual, imaginary tourist (easily offended and dependent on familiar values and cultural bromides) lurking in the background of its choices. It gives an unapologetic and comprehensive overview of the basic modes and themes of contemporary art. The sins, unfairness and indignity of American culture are surveyed and to some small degree remediated in works with both local and national resonance.

So, we might flip the usual fetish for proximity to the Capitol. It is news worth celebrating when good things happen less than a mile from the Capitol.

What’s Going On Open indefinitely at the Rubell Museum DC, 65 I St. SW.


A photo caption in an earlier version of this article misattributed Christopher Myers’s "Earth" to artist Vaughn Spann. The caption has been corrected.