Not to Leigh Conner, whose Northeast gallery has become a regular stop on Mera’s Washington circuit. The city has an art culture of its own — and an unusually strong concentration of well-educated, affluent buyers — but it needs to get the word out that “coolness doesn’t just trickle down from New York. Some of it trickles up from here,” Conner says, “and the Rubells’ enthusiasm will help raise the visibility of artists here. They are a force of nature.”
Sarah Newman, the Corcoran curator who designed the Rubells’ “30 Americans” show, admires how the couple support artists but notes that Washington’s art scene “does not need to be saved by anyone. It hasn’t quite blossomed yet, but there are a lot of very culturally engaged young people here and a lot of artists. Mera has a very New York sensibility — very aggressive in a warm way. They have an endless appetite for seeing new things, and there’s certainly room for that here.”
The Rubells expect skepticism. “People will be suspicious,” Donald says. “That’s natural. But they’ll see we’re not here to promote ourselves.”
Rather, they want to be evangelists for the cutting edge, including work too edgy for the Hirshhorn, the Smithsonian’s museum for the art of now. “Washington is absolutely on the cusp when it comes to contemporary art,” he says, “but the museums tend to be very conservative, very traditional.”
Mera interrupts to suggest that their D.C. museum may expand beyond the family’s holdings.
“Really?” Donald says, raising a very skeptical eyebrow.
Mera shoots him a glare: “We don’t have consensus on that yet.” End of topic.
But the questions persist. D.C. artists want to know if the Rubells’ museum will really bring them greater notice or just perpetuate the Rubell brand.
Unlike most major collectors, the Rubells don’t usually buy individual works. Nor do they buy through auction catalogues. They visit and buy artists. Their connection is as much with the artist as with the art.
At the Rubells’ Miami museum, director Juan Roselione-Valadez supervises the hanging of four enormous canvasses for their next show. The paintings arrived as a complete surprise to the Rubells, who had simply shown the artist the space, a vast room with a 19-foot ceiling, and let him do his thing. Not how your average museum does business.
The Rubells’ tastes reveal a penchant for the provocative, including highly explicit work. “They’re interested in very provocative material, in exploring really raw subjects,” says Newman, the Corcoran’s curator of contemporary art.
The Rubells say they are drawn not to particular subjects but to the novel, to work that makes you see the world in fresh ways.
Although neither of them grew up knowing any art collectors, the germ of their obsession was always there. Mera’s father was an artist of sorts, an immigrant from Poland who found work as a laborer but lived for weekends, when he’d take the subway from Brooklyn to set up an easel in Central Park, drawing portraits for a few dollars each.
Donald had no background in art; rather, he had an epiphany in college at Cornell, where a professor showed him Marcel Duchamps’ “Fountain,” an ordinary manufactured urinal that he turned into an object of art simply by presenting it as such.
“I’d always thought art was a painting on a wall,” Donald says. “Suddenly, I realized that art was an idea. I thought it was the most profound thing I’d ever seen.”
Donald, whose father was a postman who became a tennis pro, was born a collector — baseball cards, bottle tops, stamps, kachina dolls. But Mera, who came to America at 13 after a childhood in refugee camps and temporary stays in Germany, Russia and Israel, was brought up to be wary of possessions. Indeed, her parents taught her that they can kill you. In Poland during World War II, her father returned from the front to warn friends and family to flee before the Nazis arrived. Those who had a lot of possessions refused, arguing that they needed to defend their homes. They died.
The Rubells’ collection started soon after they married 47 years ago. Although they had no money, they scouted the city, meeting budding artists in basement studios, buying paintings for $100 or less, whatever they could save while Donald was in medical school and Mera was teaching in a Head Start program. They bought Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Jeff Koons — young struggling artists who later became big names, their works selling for millions.