Donald’s parents and his older brother Steve — the same Steve Rubell who became an icon of the disco era by founding Studio 54 with Ian Schrager — discouraged Donald and Mera from spending so much on art. When Steve died in 1989, leaving his hotel fortune to his brother, money was no longer an issue. But the Rubells had by then concluded that they would never be like high-end collectors who bid for the most expensive works. Their thrill was in discovering the new.
The making of a show
Every morning in bed, their debates about art go on for one, two, even three hours. Pleasant intellectual banter sometimes, and sometimes intense argument over taste and dollars.
“When it gets bad, it gets formal,” Mera says. The couple will meet with son Jason and his wife, Michelle, to hash out a consensus — buy or pass. (Daughter Jennifer is an artist in New York, where she specializes in installations made of food, such as 1,521 doughnuts hanging on a wall, or a 2009 event at the National Portrait Gallery where guests sat at a long table lined with baguettes. It was called the Reconciliation Dinner.)
Half a century of new art means the collection now has a history of its own, and the Rubells regularly review their holdings with their professional staff, discovering connections — references by new artists to older works in the collection, pieces that work well together in one room or one show.
That’s how “30 Americans” came to be. The Rubells never set out to collect black artists, but they realized they had not only some of today’s most exciting African American artists but also works by those artists’ mentors and heroes.
But a show of black artists by a white collector? Wouldn’t that raise questions of authenticity? The Rubells asked the artists, some of whom did express concern about an all-black show ghettoizing their work. Then came Barack Obama.
Obama’s success “changed the attitude of the artists,” Donald says. “Obama gave them the confidence to say, ‘This is my work and I don’t need the approval of a white audience. It stands on its own.’ ”
Still, some artists worried that their patrons would be called arrogant for presuming to know best about black art. “Everyone warned us not to do the show,” Mera says. “White people doing a black show! But there are no grand statements or themes here; we simply present the work we chose to collect.”
The show demonstrates a change over time. The earlier pieces overtly confront racism; later works display, at least in the Rubells’ view, a growing confidence and comfort that younger artists feel about their place in U.S. society.
But another obstacle remained: Major museums generally shy away from exhibitions exclusively devoted to a single private collector, on the theory that the museum’s imprimatur, which often vastly increases the value of a piece, could encourage collectors to sell off works at massive profits.
The Rubells are well inoculated against such suspicion because in half a century, they have sold only about a dozen of their more than 5,000 works. But they concede that the ethical hesitation is justified. “It’s a valid concern, and there are collectors who have spun off pieces like that,” Mera says. “But we’re in a time when there are collectors who just don’t do that. And if museums have the courage to change, the public gets to see work that they wouldn’t otherwise see.”
Another controversy around “30 Americans” stems from the close proximity of the show to the Rubells’ purchase of the Randall property. The idea that the Corcoran might be rewarding the Rubells for taking a financial albatross off its back is not a story line either party wants associated with the new show.
The timing of the decisions — the Corcoran had been working on the “30 Americans” show long before the Randall sale came up — and the fact that the Rubells had to bid against several other parties to get the Randall school support the argument that the two events’ temporal connection is coincidental.
In part to make clear that they’re not usurping the curator’s role, the Rubells have kept away from the Corcoran, where Newman has reconceived their show, choosing different themes and works than the family had selected in Miami.
But Mera has been in town almost weekly, trying to persuade bankers that a new hotel in the shadow of Interstate 395 could really make money as well as incubate a new art scene. “We’re going to reintroduce Washington to Southwest,” Mera says. “The stepchild of Washington is coming home.” She pauses. She likes the sound of that.
Donald emits a slight groan. She shoots him a look. And he says, “I’d just like to note that I am not given to such grandiose statements.”