“It’s not like any other city,” Mera Rubell told ARTnews, referring to Washington, DC. “To be bringing a collection that [my husband] Don and I built over the last 58 years to our nation’s capital is emotional. I have a lot of history with Washington. I was there for Martin Luther King Jr.’s march in 1963.”
Over a decade in the works, the Rubell Museum DC, which opens to the public October 29, is Mera and Don Rubell’s second private museum, after one in Miami. Housed in a building more than 115 years old, it will span 32,000 square feet. The architecture firm Beyer Blinder Belle is renovating the building, which was the home, until 1978, of the Randall School, a segregated junior high school for African American children in DC’s Southwest neighborhood. (Alumni include singer-songwriter Marvin Gaye.) The building joined the National Register of Historic Places in 2008.
“We tried to preserve as much of the character and spirit of the school as we possibly could, because there’s something very special about saving a building of that age and in that neighborhood and [with] that history,” Mera said.
Unlike the Miami museum, which has 20-foot-tall ceilings and loading bays, physical limitations may affect what kind of art DC can showcase. Mera sees it as an opportunity to highlight works in the collection that may not shine as brightly in the Miami branch’s more expansive environs. “Many of the spaces—classrooms, teachers’ offices—lend themselves to very intimate work. You can feel that history,” she said.
The building was at one point considered as a new home for the now defunct Corcoran Gallery of Art, which had purchased it from the District in 2006 for $6.2 million, and then sold it to the Rubells in 2010 for $6.5 million. The Rubells also own the Capitol Skyline Hotel, down the street, which provided shelter for unhoused people amid the pandemic. (A separate but related project will see national real estate developer Lowe develop a residential building with close to 500 units that will share a courtyard with the museum; one-fifth of those apartments have been set aside for affordable housing.)
In August, the Rubells appointed Caitlin Berry, director of the Cody Gallery at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia, as inaugural director of the DC branch. Berry’s curatorial experience ranges from mid-century African American art to the Washington Color School to contemporary art. The forthcoming institution’s programming, still under wraps at press time, will highlight the Rubells’ esteemed art collection, which they began in 1964, shortly after they married, while Don was still a medical student and Mera was a teacher at Head Start.
“We’re going to do what we do—nothing has changed for us,” Mera said. “Finding talent is our life’s mission, participating in artists’ visions, helping realize those visions, helping artists, that’s what we live for. Nothing gives us greater satisfaction than finding talent that we can help take the next step. It’s been quite a privileged life to have that as our mission.”
For the Rubells, joining DC’s art community won’t just put their collection in conversation with those of leading institutions like the Smithsonian, the National Gallery of Art, and the Phillips Collection; it will also highlight the political nature of the work made by artists they have long supported, including Rashid Johnson, Pope.L, David Hammons, and Cady Noland.
“Artists are sensitive to all the issues that we all live with every day. They don’t just make pretty paintings,” Mera said. “They don’t just decorate people’s homes. That’s not their objective.”
Correction, Monday, October 10: An earlier version of this article misstated that the Rubells are developing a residential building that will share a courtyard with the museum. It is Lowe that is developing this project. The article has been updated to reflect that.
A version of this article appears in the 2022 edition of ARTnews’s Top 200 Collectors issue, under the title “Capital Expansion.”