Museum  December 13, 2019  Ed Gunts

Miami's Renewed Rubell Museum Showcases Important Collection

Nicholas Venezia, Courtesy of Selldorf Architect

Exterior view of the Rubell Museum and courtyard garden.

Art collector Mera Rubell insists her family didn’t set out to open a museum when it bought a series of food warehouses in Miami’s Allapattah neighborhood four years ago. She said her family was simply looking for a good place to store part of its art collection, including works from its 30 Americans exhibition that has traveled to other cities.

But the windowless warehouse property they found turned out to be such a wonderful setting not only to store art but to display it, with its high ceilings and large column-free spaces, the collectors decided to open it to the public.

“I feel like this building chose us,” she said. “This was not a big plan. We weren’t going to move from where we were. We were there for 26 years and we were quite satisfied. We had a very good life. But the 30 Americans exhibit was coming back and we needed storage, so we went looking for storage. And when we found this, this building then spoke to us…And the rest is history.”

Courtesy of Rubell Museum, Chi Lam

Mera and Don Rubell in front of Kerstin Brätsch’s artwork, When You See Me Again It Won't Be Me (from Broadwaybratsch/Corporate Abstraction series), 2010.

The result is the Rubell Museum, whose opening this month was a highlight of Miami’s Design Week and the 2019 Art Basel Miami Beach festival. It’s the latest arts-related project and the first building in Miami designed by the prominent New York architect Annabelle Selldorf, and it has already become a catalyst for additional redevelopment in Allapattah, an industrial area whose name comes from the Seminole Indian-language word that means ‘alligator.’

Created out of six warehouses where Trujillo & Sons Quality Food Products previously stored beans and rice, the 100,000-square-foot art campus at 1100 NW 23rd Street includes 40 galleries with 300 works by 100 artists. In addition to 53,000 square feet of gallery space, there is an art research library, bookstore and tropical garden, all on one level. Still to come are an indoor-outdoor Basque restaurant and an event space for artist talks and other gatherings.

The project is a venture of husband-and-wife collectors Don and Mera Rubell and their son Jason, working with director Juan Roselione-Valadez. Besides son Jason, the Rubells have a daughter, Jennifer Rubell, a New York-based artist who isn’t involved in the museum’s day-to-day operation. Don Rubell is the brother of the late Steve Rubell, who opened New York’s Studio 54 nightclub with Ian Schrager in 1977 and later ushered in the era of boutique hotels with Morgans on Madison Avenue.

The new museum replaces a previous location that the Rubells opened in 1993 inside a 40,000-square-foot former Drug Enforcement Administration building in Miami’s Wynwood district. The Wynwood location, which the Rubells are selling to help pay for its replacement, was known as the Rubell Family Collection. The Allapattah campus was renamed to emphasize its role as a public resource.

Courtesy of Rubell Museum, © George Condo

George Condo, K-9 Explosion, 1986. Oil on canvas.

The contemporary art collection contains more than 7,200 works that the Rubells have acquired over the past 50 years, including paintings, sculptures, photographs, videos and installations by more than 1,000 artists. The inaugural exhibition, sponsored by Bank of America, features seminal works by artists whom the Rubells championed early in their careers, including Cindy Sherman, Jeff Koons, Keith Haring, and George Condo, and in many ways, it traces their history as collectors. Mera Rubell calls it “a retrospective of our lives as curators.”

Other artists in the collection include Richard Prince, Sterling Ruby, Mickalene Thomas, Carrie Mae Weems, Kehinde Wiley, Purvis Young, Mike Kelley, Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer, Dan Flavin and Carl Andre. There are two immersive works by Yayoi Kusama (Where the Lights in My Heart Go, 2016, and INFINITY MIRRORED ROOM – LET’S SURVIVE FOREVER, 2017), and a room-sized installation by Cady Noland created entirely out of beer cans (This Piece Has No Title, 1989). 

During a tour of the museum, Mera Rubell said the museum very much reflects her family’s approach to collecting art.

“For more than 50 years we have been on an incredible mission: searching for new art and art that has been overlooked,” Mera Rubell said in a statement. “Now, with the opening of the new Rubell Museum, we will be able to share the remarkable range of art we fell in love with along the way.”

Courtesy of Rubell Museum, Chi Lam


“Rather than presenting a single narrative or survey, we wanted to let the many voices that contribute to contemporary art speak for themselves, and with each other,” she continued. “In retracing our steps, we hope visitors will discover, as we did, that creativity thrives where artists energize each other’s practices, and wrestle with shared issues and artmaking in new ways.”.  

The Rubells, who were instrumental in bringing the Art Basel festival to Miami Beach, say they won’t display works they don’t own, but the installation will change as they plan new exhibits, acquire new works and find homes for works that have been out on loan or traveling.

Courtesy Rubell Museum, Chi Lam

Rubell Museum gallery featuring works by Yoshitomo Nara and Takashi Murakami.

When a piece goes out on loan the way Keith Haring’s 1982 Statue of Liberty did a while back, she reasons, that presents a chance to replace it with another one that’s engaging in a different way, like guests mingling at a cocktail party. “Art is always talking to each other. It’s kind of fun, because if something leaves, we’ll have an opportunity to inject another conversation into the room.”

A new name and space have given the family a renewed sense of purpose, Jason Rubell said.

“We want to have something for the city, he said. “We’ve been doing this since the early 90s, but I think now, with the new space, with the name and the kind of mission we’re on, we’re eager to see where it goes 20 years from now.”

Courtesy Rubell Museum, © Kehinde Wiley

Kehinde Wiley, Sleep, 2008. Oil on canvas.

The Rubell Museum is open Wednesday through Sunday, from 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. General admission is $15 per person; $10 for Miami-Dade County residents and teachers, and free for visitors 18 and under, students and active military personnel. A  nearby Metrorail stop helps make it accessible to people without cars.

For all that the family has accomplished with its move, Mera Rubell says, there’s one issue it has yet to address. “We still haven’t solved the storage problem.”

About the Author

Ed Gunts

Ed Gunts is the former architecture critic of The Baltimore Sun.

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