Rubell Museum DC Opens, Changing How Contemporary Art is Viewed in the Region

Changing How Contemporary Art is Viewed in the Region

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Kehinde Wiley “Sleep”, 2008, Oil on canvas, 132 x 300 in. (335.3 x 762 cm). Acquired in 2009.

If you’ve been really, really good in a past life, will you come back as something even better in the next?  That is the question on everyone’s mind in DC as Southwest’s long-neglected Randall School is set to reincarnate, once again, into something new. 

Originally built in 1906 as a public school to educate Black children, since its closing in 1978, the building has housed a homeless shelter, artist studios and was last owned by the Corcoran School of Art + Design until it was finally sold to the Rubells.

After more than ten years of planning and construction, Randall School is now the DC region’s newest museum of contemporary art—Rubell Museum DC. 

Rubell Museum DC Façade Rendering, courtesy of Beyer Blinder Belle.

Rebuilt to house the vast collection of contemporary art acquired over the course of a half-a-century by the Rubell family, the 32,000 square foot exhibition space, which preserves the layout of the original school, opened its doors to the public on Saturday, October 29, 2022. DC residents are admitted free of charge.  

The inaugural exhibition titled “What’s Going On?”—borrowed from DC native and Randall School alumnus Marvin Gaye’s 1971 album—will include 190 works by 37 artists.  The works in the exhibition are in dialog with the lyrics from the album’s tracks which thematically address social and environmental issues still relevant fifty years since the record’s release. 

The Rubells: A Connection to Living Artists

Don and Mera Rubell started collecting art in 1965 when Don was in medical school and Mera taught a Head Start program.   Since then, the couple, along with their son Jason Rubell, have built one of the world’s most important and critically acclaimed art collections.  

: Hank Willis Thomas “From the Unbranded Series BA Natural Exposion! Afro Sheen® Blowout Creme Relaxer”, 1973/2007, 2007, Lambda photograph, ed. 2/530 x 36 in. (76.2 x 91.5 cm). Acquired in 2007.

What sets the Rubells apart from many collectors is their hands-on approach to collecting. They don’t just buy art; they form life-long relationships with the artists whose work they collect.  They are deeply connected to living artists, many of whom are emerging or mid-career which requires a certain amount of risk-taking on the Rubells’ part.  

Rather than keeping all of the work tied up in a large private residence or storage vault, which many collectors are known for doing, the Rubells have made their collection available to the public.  In 1993, the Rubells created a foundation for that purpose in Miami and opened their collection for public viewing.  Rubell Museum DC is part of this ongoing commitment by the family’s foundation to making the collection open to all. 

Neighborhood Impact

The Randall School is not the Rubell’s first commercial real estate acquisition in DC.  The couple purchased Capitol Skyline Hotel, located across I Street SW from Randall School, in the 2000s. Since the Rubells took over the property, the hotel hosted DC’s first art fair, (e)merge in 2011-2014. It was organized by CONNERSMITH, one of DC’s largest commercial galleries. The hotel was also the temporary headquarters of Washington Project for the Arts from February 2013 until the arts nonprofit moved to their permanent Shaw location in 2016.

Keith Haring
“Untitled (Against All Odds)”, 1989 Sumi ink and gouache on
handmade linen
paper 25 x 30 in. (63.5 x 76 cm). Acquired in 1989.

Currently, Southwest is home to the some of the region’s most attended performing art venues including Arena Stage and The Anthem.  Rubell Museum DC will provide the visual art anchor in the neighborhood’s already impressive cultural landscape. 

Caitlin Berry Leads the Charge 

At the helm of the new museum, Director Caitlin Berry came into her new position not unlike how the  Rubells came in contact with their collection—through her passion for art and artists.  

A rising star in the DC art scene, Berry worked at Hemphill Fine Arts, one of the city’s most prestigious commercial galleries.  She also directed Cody Gallery at Marymount University in Arlington and most recently, she ran her own art consultancy practice.  

One might expect that a high profile family foundation like the Rubell’s would use an executive search firm to find the next director for their DC museum.  However, in true Rubell fashion, they turned to their artists for council.  They asked Hank Willis Thomas, a nationally acclaimed artist who once called DC home, if he had a short-list in mind of people who could lead the new DC museum. Having been away from DC for some time, Thomas referred the Rubells to DC-based Nekisha Durrett.  Durrett in turn introduced the Rubells to Caitlin Berry who represented her.  “I am so honored to come to them [the Rubells] via a recommendation from someone for whom I have the utmost respect,” Berry explains. 

Caitlin Berry. ©Sarah Marcella Creative.

Berry is equally excited about the impact that the Rubells will have on contemporary art in DC, their long-term plans for the collection and how it will be presented.  She describes the couple as being “totally intrepid in their vision” and explained that the family understands how art can create conversations around which social change can take place.  

In addition to running operations for the museum before its inaugural opening, Berry has also been hard at work with community outreach—attending ANC meetings, connecting with the SW BID and other neighborhood groups to ensure the museum serves its neighbors long after the fanfare of opening day has receded.     

“What’s Going On?”

The 190 works in the inaugural exhibition include art by Natalie Ball, Cecily Brown, Maurizio Cattelan, Jonathan Lyndon Chase, Leonardo Drew, Chase Hall, February James, Rashid Johnson, Josh Kline, Cady Noland, Richard Prince, Christina Quarles, Tschabalala Self, Sylvia Snowden, Vaughn Spann, Hank Willis Thomas, Mickalene Thomas, John Waters, Carrie Mae Weems, Kehinde Wiley, Kennedy Yanko, and Cajsa von Zeipel. 

Keith Haring’s “Untitled (Against All Odds)”, 1989, is a series of 20 works he created while listening to Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?”  They serve as a preamble to the other works while simultaneously setting the overall tone of the exhibition.

Long-term Impact For DC

One important difference between Rubell Museum DC and its counterparts in the region is the collectors’ emphasis on living artists and by extension, contemporaneity—that is, the Rubells understand artmaking in real time.

They have a track record of recognizing how the present connects to the future, in other words, they see trends before they happen.  This could prove particularly beneficial for DC artists who have long struggled to find recognition locally and in many cases, have had to go elsewhere or worse, pass away, to find critical acclaim.  

With a brick-and-mortar presence in DC, will the Rubells recognize the talent of emerging and mid-career regional artists before other institutions do?  If the answer is an affirmative one, this could signal a welcome new era for DC artists as local museums and collectors scramble to purchase work before the Rubells scoop it for their collection! 

Rubell Museum DC is located at 65 I Street SW, Washington, DC, 20024.  Contact the museum by phone at 202-964-8254 or via email infodc@rubellmuseum.org. Free for DC Residents. Hours of operation: Wed., Thu. & Fri.: 11:30 am – 5:30 pm; Sat. & Sun.: 10:00 am – 6:00 pm. Visit dc.rubellmuseum.org for more information.

Phil Hutinet is the publisher of East City Art, DC’s art journal. For more information visit www.eastcityart.com.