It takes a special visionary to nurture a personal passion over nearly 60 years and turn it into a nationally respected public legacy. Longtime Miami art collectors Don and Mera Rubell are not artists and have no formal training in art appreciation. Yet, through a keen eye for emerging talent and a fearless trust in their own intuition, they’ve not only amassed one of the largest private collections of contemporary art in the country, but they’ve made it available for the public to enjoy.
Beginning in 1993, the collection, initially named the Rubell Family Collection, was on display in a 40,000-square-foot facility in the Wynwood district of Miami. Then in December 2019, the collection became the Rubell Museum and opened in a larger space in the Allapattah neighborhood. Renowned architect Annabelle Selldorf designed the renovation of the building, which was previously separated warehouses.
When the couple first began collecting, the idea of opening a museum would have been “ludicrous,” says Don. But as their collection grew, they felt the need to share its powerful messages with the public. “Contemporary art is an amazingly perceptive mirror of society that makes me think about what I think and sometimes makes me change my mind,” Don explains. “It gives us all the opportunity to make our own judgments because we can only judge contemporary art in the moment we are looking at it.” Critics and the public have already passed judgment on the works of the old masters, he adds, which influences our thinking.
“What they’ve done [with the museum] is just breathtaking,” says friend Arnold Lehman, a senior advisor at Phillips Auctioneers in New York City and director emeritus of the Brooklyn Museum. “They are indefatigable and will go anywhere to look at art and because of that, they’ve built something very important for Miami and South Florida.”
Mera traces the beginnings of the couple’s shared passion to 1964, the year they were married. “I was a teacher for Head Start, making $100 a week, and Don had started medical school at NYU,” she recalls. “We lived in the Flower District, now called Chelsea, and in the evenings, we took walks, encountering artists who lived and worked in the empty storefronts. We went into their studios and a whole world opened.”
Despite the young couple’s limited budget, they began buying contemporary art. “We started with what was affordable and appealing at the time,” Mera says. “In Chelsea, we weren’t likely to stumble onto famous artists.” Their first piece was by a “no-name” artist whose work they admired. “We knew nothing about art and when he asked us what we could afford to pay on a payment plan, I said $5,” she says with a laugh, but the artist agreed. “How far can you stretch a payment plan? Pretty far, I can tell you.”
Flash-forward 57 years: Today the museum’s collection includes more than 7,000 works by more than 1,000 artists, including Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jeff Koons, and Cindy Sherman as well as scores of emerging artists from around the globe. The new campus also includes a Basque restaurant, Leku, with indoor and alfresco dining, a library, and 40 galleries across 60,000 square feet of exhibit space inside connected former warehouses.
“It’s a version of, ‘If you build it, they will come,’” says Lehman, referring to the location in Allapattah, an industrial neighborhood of distribution centers and warehouses. “You had to imagine what the inside of this warehouse looked like, and at first you think, ‘Who in their right mind would have dreamt of that as a museum?’ They are risk-takers, never afraid to take a chance.”
In 1993, Wynwood had much of the same flavor that Allapattah does today. But if history is a guide, the museum’s current home will serve as the catalyst for an international art boom similar to the one it helped to kick-start in Wynwood. Superblue Miami, an interactive art experience inclusive of site-specific works by such lauded artists as James Turrell, opened across the street from the Rubell Museum earlier this year.
The museum is largely privately funded through the couple’s work with the family hotel and real estate businesses. Grants from organizations such as the Knight Foundation and Bank of America have supported the decade-long artist-in-residence program, as well as educational opportunities for students, such as internships.
Personally, the Rubells have supported and encouraged artists through the years, often by being among the first to purchase their work. As collectors, it makes sense, says Don, because it allows them ground-floor access to the prime pieces. “If you collect art from an earlier period, you are often buying the leftovers because the artist’s best work is already in institutions and large private collections,” he adds. “You have to remember, Picasso was once a young artist. Matisse was once a young artist. And often, their best art was made early in their career.”
The Rubells, including their son, Jason, were also instrumental in bringing Art Basel to Miami Beach nearly 20 years ago. The annual international art event has put South Florida on the map for artists, dealers, and collectors, says Lehman. “Miami quickly became synonymous with art, and the fairs that Art Basel spawned became part and parcel of the city.”
Art is a family affair for the Rubells, with both of their children inheriting the artistic gene: Jason is a collector who works with his parents in the real estate business and museum, while daughter Jennifer is a conceptual artist. “She has the artist gene and he has the collector gene,” quips Mera. Discussions rarely waver from their favorite topic. “We always talk about art. When my husband and I wake up, we talk about art. The conversation at Thanksgiving and Christmas is about art. I would say it’s a consuming family passion,” Mera jokes, but adds that it is also an opportunity for “cross-generation” communication that includes their five grandchildren.
“Art is not a boring subject,” Mera continues. Part of the reason the passion for contemporary art is easy to sustain decade after decade, she notes, is because it speaks to the issues of our time. “Keith Haring was relevant when the AIDS pandemic was raging [in the 1980s and 1990s]. It was a hidden affliction, and it was a theme in many of his works.”
As for the future direction of contemporary art, notably the recent buzz around digital, non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and increasingly interactive works, Mera is sanguine. “As collectors, we don’t have to think about the future,” she says. “We go where the artist takes us.” Though she has yet to be inspired by NFTs, she keeps an open mind. “Whatever it takes to make great art, I never rule it out. I look for works that inspire, teach, and relate to my life by expanding my vision of the world. If it does those things, it’s powerful.”
The couple continues to travel the globe—wherever they feel great art is emerging—prowling galleries and museums, visiting artists, attending lectures, and doing due diligence before making any purchase. “Don is a fanatically well-read researcher,” Mera says. “We have a library of 40,000 volumes and they’re always read, because they don’t get put on the shelves until they’ve been read.”
Perhaps surprisingly, what they don’t have in their home is an extensive art collection. Instead, they display one or two pieces in need of deliberation. “We don’t use art for decoration,” Mera explains. “We hang a work in the house that we want to study and explore. Our home is kind of a lab.”
Reflecting on their decades-long collecting journey, Mera likens it to an out-of-body experience. “We are still doing what we used to do when we started collecting in Chelsea all those years ago. We challenge ourselves and we don’t go into the world expecting; we go in curious and then we’re delighted, engaged, and inspired. We feel very privileged. I’m the child of immigrants and my husband is the child of a postal carrier, so we come from humble beginnings, but we’re very proud of what we’ve achieved.”