Rubell Museum Will Open During Art Basel Miami Beach

The new Rubell Museum offers a comprehensive contemporary-art experience from the collection of Mera and Don Rubell.

WORDS Brett Sokol
November / December 2019
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Mera and Don Rubell. / Chilam

The search for storage may seem like an odd way to dig into the origins of Miami’s ongoing contemporary-art boom. Yet Mera Rubell, one of the art world’s most prominent collectors, insists that storage solutions were not only key to her own move from New York City to Miami, but also to the emergence of Miami itself as a veritable art mecca. By the early 1990s, “It was costing us so much money in New York for storage it was making us crazy,” she recalls, still groaning at the memory. “New York prices were insane!” Indeed, Mera and her husband, Don, had become one of New York’s foremost art-collecting couples. But even a spacious town house like theirs only had so many walls on which to hang all those paintings. 

The Rubells’ solution? Create their own climate-controlled storage facility in Miami, where they’d opened a hotel and where real estate was still relatively affordable. In 1993 they settled on a former Drug Enforcement Administration warehouse in the then-sketchy Miami neighborhood of Wynwood. Cavernous rooms inside the 40,000-square-foot building that once held seized drugs and weapons became filled with their marquee purchases by a who’s who of art, from heady conceptualists like Joseph Beuys and Cindy Sherman to eye-grabbing painters such as Andy Warhol and Christopher Wool. Rubell says her son, freshly graduated from college and interested in curating exhibitions, then posed an intriguing question: “What if we opened this all up to the public?” The next year the Rubell Family Collection—a privately owned, publicly accessible museum—was born.
Cindy Sherman's Untiled Film Still #21, 1978. / ©Cindy Sherman
Other Miami collectors soon followed suit with their own private museums, often showcasing holdings that rivaled those of more established public art museums.

Some critics may have groused that this trend was less about the benefit to the art-seeking public and more about bragging rights for wealthy collectors, but the international explosion of interest in Miami’s art scene was undeniable. The 2002 arrival of an annual Miami Beach edition of Switzerland’s Art Basel fair, often dubbed the “Super Bowl of the art world,” further cemented South Florida on the global jet-setting cultural itinerary.

Twenty-five years later, with her Wynwood warehouse-turned-museum now holding more than 7,000 artworks—and dozens more being acquired every year—Mera Rubell says she was out of room. The solution? “We had to go out into the world and look for storage again.”

She and her family eventually bought a 100,000-square-foot warehouse complex for $4 million in the nearby neighborhood of Allapattah. Yet once again, a structure intended as merely a nondescript storage facility quickly took on a larger life of its own. “I’ll never forget when we walked between the buildings and really looked around,” Rubell says of the day she and her husband arrived to sign the new property’s purchase papers. “We said to each other, ‘Wait a minute—this is really too good for just storage!’ ” The family decided to relocate entirely into the new space, with a new name—the Rubell Museum—and an opening set for December, tied to the crowds expected for the concurrent Art Basel Miami Beach fair.

Jeff Koon's New Hoover Deluxe Rug Shampooer. / ©Jeff Koons Studio
“It’s not a real estate play,” she adds, though she notes that prices in Wynwood have soared so high, the planned sale of her building there was bankrolling (and then some) the move to Allapattah. “It’s just unbelievable what we’re going to be able to do,” she continues, describing the new building’s event space, regular lectures there by art-world figures, and even an on-site restaurant, Leku, co-owned by Alejandro Muguerza of Le Basque catering. The expanded exhibition area also means visitors should expect to see both familiar installations such as Cady Noland’s droll stacks of beer cans, This Piece Has No Title Yet, and the eerily lifelike naked doppelgängers of Charles Ray’s Oh! Charley, Charley, Charley…, as well as iconic works by Jean-Michel Basquiat and Jeff Koons that haven’t been pulled out of storage in years.

“Call it a hit parade of the last 50 years of contemporary art,” Rubell quips.

In other words, expect a comprehensive museum experience, though formally rechristening the Rubell Family Collection as the Rubell Museum was less about hubris than accessibility. “We wanted to make it very, very clear that this is a facility open to the public,” Mera Rubell says. “I still run into people who say, ‘Can you invite me to see your collection?’ We came to realize it’s not their fault they think it’s private and they have to ask to enter. Some people don’t know what a ‘collection’ is, but everybody knows what a ‘museum’ is.”

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