Look inside the Rubell Museum, D.C.'s new modern art museum opening this weekend
When art collectors Mera and Don Rubell open their long-anticipated contemporary art museum in Southwest D.C. this week, the public will finally get to see the result of a $20 million renovation over a decade in the making.
The Rubell Museum DC opens at 65 I St. SW on Oct. 29 and comes with two dozen galleries, a bookstore, a terrace, food and beverage offerings that are still TBA, and a Marvin Gaye-inspired opening exhibit. Sylvia Snowden, a D.C.-based abstract painter who graduated from Howard University, will also display her works in a solo exhibit at the museum.
D.C. residents have free admission to the museum, similar to the nearby Smithsonian museums. The difference is the Smithsonian receives funding from the federal government. In the case of the Rubell, free resident admission is the result of the Rubell's own financial contributions, corporate sponsorships and foundation grants, and (future) admission revenue from non-residents, a spokesperson said.
Mera and Don Rubell, a former teacher and physician respectively, purchased the historic Randall Junior High School site for $6.5 million from the Corcoran College of Art and Design in 2010, but development was delayed due to financial setbacks. They've since transformed the 32,000-square foot school building's classrooms and auditorium into gallery spaces showcasing nearly 200 pieces from their collection. The couple has amassed about 7,400 works by more than 1,000 artists over the past half century.
The Rubells are no strangers to museum ownership. They've run a museum in Miami since 1993 and supported many now-famous artists, including Jeff Koons, Cecily Brown, and Jean-Michel Basquiat, early in their careers. The new museum is an expansion of their public presence and builds on their mission to educate:
"As a former teacher, I see artists and teachers playing parallel roles as educators and in fostering civic engagement," Mera Rubell said in a statement. "With the preservation of this building, we honor the legacy of the Randall School's many teachers, students, and parents."
The Rubells have exhibited their collection in art spaces around the world and are well known among Miami's "culturati." But their name is less familiar in D.C., which already has a packed landscape of art museums like the National Gallery of Art, private museums like the Phillips Collection, university galleries, and the Smithsonian's buffet of cultural offerings.
The couple appointed Caitlin Berry to be the museum's director. After working for a private gallery in New York, Berry became director of Hemphill Fine Arts, a D.C. gallery that has showcased the work of up-and-coming and well-known contemporary artists for more than two decades. She promoted artists who were part of the Washington Color School movement — including Alma Thomas and Sam Gilliam — along with other D.C.-based artists like Hedieh Ilchi and Rush Baker.
Berry prides herself on having connected local artists to the rest of the world, she says. Her goal for the Rubell Museum is similar: to connect visitors with the broader world of modern art. The museum will have programming that is "accessible and removes barriers that may exist for folks who may perceive a contemporary art museum as something that is a bit unapproachable," Berry says. While the museum hasn't announced any public events just yet, Berry says visitors can expect plenty of artist talks and collaborations with other local organizations.
She sees the Rubell Museum as complementing — but not competing with — other local art museums.
"We just want to add a new dimension," Berry adds. "We're focused on contemporary art being made today that represents the times we're living in. And that's been the mission of the Rubells since they started collecting in 1965. As we've moved forward in time, so too has the kind of art they've collected."
While the collection's scope extends beyond the region's boundaries, there are some meaningful local tie-ins.
The opening exhibit "What's Going On" is named after Marvin Gaye's 1971 album and soulful title track, a plea for peace abroad and at home. Gaye was a graduate of Randall Junior High, a historically Black public school that educated local children from 1906 to 1978. The building changed hands multiple times since then, falling into disrepair before the Rubell's bought it for their museum.
Gaye's music also inspired some of the art on display. Keith Haring's 1989 series of 20 drawings, "Untitled (Against All Odds)," introduces the exhibit and is dedicated to Don Rubell's brother, Steve Rubell, a famous New York club owner who died of AIDS. Haring created the pieces in one day while listening to Gaye's album. He was inspired by messages of resistance to environmental destruction, war, and oppression, a theme seen throughout the exhibit.
Another central piece is Kehinde Wiley's "Sleep." The massive 11-by-25-foot painting mirrors Jean-Bernard Restout's 18th-century painting of the same title, but replaces the main figure with a Black man. (Wiley's name may be known to many locally because he painted President Barack Obama's portrait for the National Portrait Gallery.)
The Rubells curated the selections with Berry, the Miami museum's director Juan Valadez, and their son, Jason. One of their goals is to make the experience of engaging with art less stuffy.
"They're a bit unusual in terms of private museums," Berry says. "You'll see the Rubells in the museum in Miami on most days, in conversation with visitors. They want to know how the visitors feel and how they're connecting to the work."
The museum beefs up the city's arts offerings south of the National Mall. Immersive digital art gallery Artechouse is also in Southwest, just off the mall, and Arena Stage's Mead Centre for American Theater is a short walk away from the new Rubell Museum. Just around the block, gallery and event space Culture House DC (formerly Blind Whino) has operated for years out of a brightly colored historic church.
Whether the Rubell Museum will become a staple in the D.C. arts scene like its Ward 6 neighbors remains to be seen, but the museum's leaders promise it will be interesting.
"I think that we can expect visitors to feel a sense of emotional connection and wonder when they walk through our doors," Berry says.
Rubell Museum DC, 65 I St SW; "What's Going On" opens Oct. 29. The museum will be open from Wednesday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. – 5:30 p.m., and on Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. – 6 p.m.; Admission is free for D.C. residents and $10-15 for others.
This story originally appeared on DCist.com.
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