“We’ve been together for half a century, which is a miracle,” collector Mera Rubell said this morning in São Paulo, sitting with her husband Don in front of a crowd at the São Paulo Museum of Modern Art, where the SP-Arte fair is holding its talks. The audience, many wearing headsets to get Portuguese translations, United Nations-style, applauded. “What makes it an amazing achievement is that we fight every day,” she said, adding that it is important for their marriage.
The two had been in town for only a few days, but had already done more than 20 studio visits with artists. Their son Jason didn’t make the trip, and though all three usually have to sign off on art purchases, they said that rule lasted only for a few hours. “You have our attention!” Mera said.
During the talk, which was moderated by advisor Simon Watson, the two sprinkled in bits of collecting wisdom.
Don: “The art that ultimately proves most interesting is the art that makes you uncomfortable when you see it. It’s easy to buy art that’s pretty or that reminds you of something else.”
Mera: “The young gallerists, as far as I am concerned, are the real soldiers. They’re the citizen soldiers. They go out there and protect the heritage and find the talent in the local.”
Marking their 50th anniversary, the two have published a new book documenting their activity that is 800 pages—“I don’t think this is even 10 percent of the collection,” Mera said, holding the tome. Their famed Budweiser can-filled Cady Noland installation, This Piece Has No Title Yet (1989), which is on permanent display at their Miami museum, is on the cover.
“The Cady Noland piece is interesting and special,” Don said, “because Cady—for those of you who know her—is known as a fairly difficult artist, but this is one of the only places where Cady came down to install the piece, and that alone is difficult because Cady does not believe in flying, so we put her on a train with someone to bring her down. She slept here in the space for two days to get a feel for the space.”
When Gagosian Gallery asked to borrow it for a show a few years ago, Don said, Noland announced she would kill Larry Gagosian if they went through with it. So: no loan. (That tale was first printed in Sarah Thornton’s recent book 33 Artists in 3 Acts.)
The two also talked about their shows “30 Americans” (all African-American artists) and “28 Chinese” (self-explanatory, and the result of seven or eight trips to China), and the fact that they did the former even though many counseled them against it. “Everyone we spoke to said, ‘Don’t do it,’” Mera recalled. “Everyone white we spoke to—every museum director and curator—said, ‘Don’t do the show. It’s ghettoizing, patronizing, it will bring you down. All these years you’ve worked to create your collection will be an embarrassment.’ It turned out to be one of the greatest things we will ever do because it was a celebration of something that needed celebrating.”
“30 Americans” traveled to 12 venues, set attendance records at more than half of them, and had the First Family as visitors when it was at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. “Art has this magic ability to deal with issues and allows things to come out into the open that might not exist otherwise,” Don said of the reception.
“The heart of the matter is that art saved my life,” Mera said. “The fact of the matter is that it saved our marriage, it brought us together, it saved our family, because it’s constantly teaching us about who we are, and somehow giving hope that there’s a future.”
The two were getting along swimmingly. Before opening up the talk to questions, Mera turned to Don and gave him a surprised look. “I think we were pretty peaceful!” she said.