On an October afternoon in 1989, artist Keith Haring repeatedly played Marvin Gaye’s 1971 album What’s Going On as he created a suite of 20 drawings. Done in Sumi ink on Dutch linen paper, these works ponder climate change and the destruction of our planet in the name of capitalism.
In one, a globe with a hole in it bleeds oil behind a snake that is severed at its head. In a handwritten note that opens this series, Haring writes about how Gaye’s song “questions the future of the planet. … Sometimes music is a ‘background’ for drawing, but sometimes it becomes an essential part of the creation of the work. These drawings are about the Earth we inherited and the dismal task of trying to save it—against all odds.”
This suite of drawings is one of the first things you see at the Rubell Museum DC, a new branch of the Miami-based family’s private museum. The works get a gallery to themselves where “What’s Going On” plays on repeat. That song radiates through the room and out into the three levels of the museum, whose building was once home to the historic Randall School in Washington, D.C.’s Southwest neighborhood.
Fittingly, Gaye was one of the Randall School’s most notable alums, and Haring dedicated this suite to his longtime friend Steve Rubell, the brother of the museum’s cofounder Don Rubell. Steve died in July 1989, just a few months before Haring made the series. In this room, Gaye, Haring, and Steve Rubell’s presences are all palpable.
That gallery sets the tone, not only for this inaugural exhibition at the Rubell Museum DC, which borrows “What’s Going On” as its title, but also for the venture as a whole, which had been in the works for over decade. Though the Rubells commissioned the Haring works, which have been exhibited extensively, including in major retrospectives in Europe, it wasn’t until recently that Don and Mera Rubell realized the influence of Gaye’s music on the creation of the piece.
“I don’t know when we realized it, but the text was right in front of our eyes,” Mera, who has been married to Don since 1964, told ARTnews ahead of the museum’s opening last week. “We were like: Wait a minute, Marvin Gaye, Keith Haring, ‘What’s Going On.’ Hello! Once you have ‘What’s Going On,’ it becomes a roadmap. It’s such a powerful framework.”
She continued, “The absolute truth is that every artist in our collection could be in this show. What’s going on is contemporary art. That’s the definition.”
The works from their collection, which includes thousands of pieces, are on view across the museum’s four floors range. They range from historic pieces by Haring, Carrie Mae Weems, Cady Noland, Barkley L. Hendricks, El Anatsui, Jenny Holzer, and Kehinde Wiley to works produced in the past few years by artists like Cajsa von Zeipel, Genesis Tramaine, Tschabalala Self, Jonathan Lyndon Chase, and Natalie Ball.
One thematic room looks at images of women in painting by artists by the likes of Lisa Yuskavage, Cecily Brown, Marlene Dumas, and Mickalene Thomas, while an adjacent gallery explores similar concerns in the work of artists like Self, Chase, and Christina Quarles, who consider representations of the body through the lens of race, gender, and queerness.
Yet another space is dedicated to Hank Willis Thomas’s groundbreaking “Unbranded” series (2006–08), which looks at the representation of African Americans in advertising between 1968 and 2008. The Rubells provided early support to that project, which has been widely exhibited across the U.S. Nearby is a gallery filled with works by Chase Hall, whose paintings the Rubells only began acquiring about two years ago and had not yet exhibited. The collectors recalled that Hall had said he was eager for them to be displayed in the new D.C. space.
“I think that’ll be what’s dictating things: where the artists feel like they want to see their work and engage with it,” Jason Rubell, Don and Mera’s son, said. “I think artists are tuned into this as a place of activation.”
This is a much more intimate museum experience than the Rubells’ Miami space, and one in which the preservation of a historic building, expertly done by architectural firm Beyer Blinder Belle, is additive rather than distracting. The classrooms, as well as the smaller corridor-size teacher’s room, provide a different scale and vibe than has become the white-cube approach that has become the norm for contemporary art spaces.
“When I take people on a tour,” Mera said, “I always say, ‘Put your hands behind your back so you don’t freak out the security guard, and go really close to the painting.’ Because when you see a painting from back here it’s different than when looking at it really, really close. Here, I don’t even to tell them that because the minute they walk from the classroom into the teacher’s room, the works are right in your face.”
She added, “I’m totally infatuated with this building, with the feeling of it. It’s like having another child. I love both children.”
Like their Miami space, the D.C. museum is meant to allow for a nimble in what they can show, with the ability to exhibit works they have purchased only months earlier. The Rubells acquired the work of Sylvia Snowden, who is based in the city, after visiting her studio earlier this year. Snowden’s works are abstractions with thick layers of vibrant hues of paint—pinks, reds, golds, blacks—that are built up to a point where they become sculptural. In the first gallery is a 2020 tapestry, titled Earth, by Christopher Myers that reflects on the pandemic, specifically how New York’s Hart Island became a burial site for those who died due to Covid but whose bodies were unclaimed.
Similarly, when the Rubells were in New York in September for the Armory Show, they saw Juanita McNeely’s four-panel Woman’s Psyche (1968), created five years before abortion became legal in the U.S. with the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade. In one panel, a woman gives birth to a blue fetus. In pain, she grasps onto two phallic-like objects.
Since the Supreme Court’s decision this past June in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which overturned the constitutional right to a legal abortion, McNeely’s work has taken on new poignancy. Mera said that the choice to exhibit the piece was “handed to us on a silver platter.”
The Rubells are among the most prodigious collectors in the country—they’ve ranked on each edition of the ARTnews Top 200 Collectors list since 1993—and they have long been known for spotting talent and supporting emerging artists long before they get wider recognition. While there might some skepticism around the need for another private museum for a collector to show off their holdings, particularly in Washington, D.C., what the Rubell Museum represents is something more personal than just another contemporary art institution. Instead, it’s a love letter to the artists they collect and to the city of D.C.
The collectors have no ambition other than to show the art they have been collecting since 1964. Their approach since then has been “artist-first, always,” as Mera put it. Now, she’s hoping that showing these artists will put them on the track toward greater recognition in a city with some of the country’s best museums.
“It’s an out of body experience because it is D.C.—it’s a little intimidating,” Mera said. “People really expect us to do something important here. We didn’t realize how hungry the community was for something like this, but there’s so much desire to bring a vitality here.”
Correction: November 3, 2022: An earlier version of this article misstated which neighborhood the Rubell Museum DC is located in. It is D.C.’s Southwest, not Northwest.