The Collectors: Don and Mera Rubell

Published in Framed, Issue 2, 2011

Don and Mera Rubell have been collecting art for as long as they have been married, which is almost 50 years. Today they have one of the world’s largest, privately-owned contemporary art collections which was established in 1964 and is housed in a museum in Miami, Florida. Later this year they are set to open another space in Washington, DC. The Rubell Family Collection also consists of a library of 40,000 books on art and the museum runs internships for students from all across the world, as well as interacting with the school system so large numbers of people can experience their incredible collection. Exhibitions featuring the Rubells’ works tour the world, like the couple themselves, as they seek out the most interesting art, to ensure the collection continues to go from strength to strength.

Photo courtesy of Simon Hare and Whitewall Magazine.
Photo courtesy of Simon Hare and Whitewall Magazine.

How did you first start collecting?
Mera Rubell: We never sat down and made a decision. We met almost 50 years ago. At the time Don was studying medicine and I was a teacher. During breaks from studying we started taking walks in our neighbourhood. It was the 1960s and a very interesting time to walk around. Artists had started to rent storefronts in the area to be their studios and we were totally intrigued by this. We started to meet the artists and, as strange as it may sound, they were delighted to converse with us and to find young people who were engaging with their work. We had very little money but we would fall in love with something and come up with a payment plan in order to be able to buy it. I was earning $100 a week and we budgeted $25 a week to collect.

The first pieces we purchased were drawings and paintings from some of the young artists. Many went on to teach art or become educators. They didn’t become the big names. But eventually, in the 1970s, we came across Cindy Sherman, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Richard Prince and bought their works. But they weren’t big names at that time. We met a lot of wonderful artists.

It wasn’t until later that we realised we were collecting. We never called it collecting. It was an endless infatuation with what we were seeing and a love of engaging with these young people who were showing art at the time. Like everybody else, we always thought collecting was something reserved for very wealthy people. We never realised that anyone could be a collector; it is about figuring out how to prioritise your money. In fact, we were collectors from the very beginning. We started our collection by developing a passion, and developing relationships with young artists, and then figuring out a way to pay, a way they were happy with and which worked for us. You do make sacrifices but perhaps in comparison to owning original works of art, nothing is a sacrifice.

Is there any particular type of art that has consistently attracted you, or anything that unites all the works you have acquired?
MR: I think art drove the conversation. It was always art that challenged us to broaden our understanding of the world and of our own life. To this day we never come with a requirement; we don’t come saying it has to be pink, or blue or green…
Don Rubell: We don’t make art, we collect art, so we always have to go to where the most interesting art is being made. If we impose our will on what should be collected then the artist doesn’t have a chance.
MR: We don’t see ourselves as the creators of the art, we see ourselves as the collectors which means being open to engage in the conversation that the artist takes us into.

Do you still have all the art you have ever bought?
DR: We still have everything. Our business is not art; we collect art for a passion. Keeping the art allows the continuity of the ideas that generated the collection.
MR: Sixteen years ago we opened a not-for-profit museum, a collection space that is open to public. It’s a 45,000 square foot space that was a former drug confiscation centre. That was a major turning point in our evaluation, interpretation and inspiration for the continuation of our collection. It allowed us to reflect and to continue with the young collecting, but also, because there is now almost 50 years of collecting, we are able to curate dialogues between the young artists that we are collecting today and the artists that now have been around for generations and who are influencing young artists. There are a lot of older artists who have been the inspiring forces for a lot of the younger generations, so it’s very dynamic for us to offer a historical perspective. Plus it helps us understand the collection as it puts perspective on everything we’ve been doing for the last 50 years.
DR: A lot of the artists we buy now feel a sense of amazement when they find themselves hanging in rooms with people who were either professors or heroes when they were growing up.
MR: It is very meaningful to have been fortunate enough to have collected this history that now is a resource for artists to engage with and to participate in.

How do you buy art and how do you find new works?
MR:We try to find the art that is interesting; it has to add to the conversation.
DR: We buy the best art that’s being made at this time. If the most interesting art is coming out of Los Angeles we’ll be there, if it’s Germany we’ll be there, if it’s China we’ll be there. It doesn’t matter to us where the art is made or what it is, it only matters that it’s the most interesting at this moment.
We travel literally a quarter of a million miles a year just looking at art. We visit artists’ studios as well as galleries and museums. It is very important to us that we visit the artists in their studios to see what the art is about and what they are thinking.
MR: When we talk about going to visit studios, this is not about bypassing the gallery system. We are usually with the gallerist, but we buy so early that it’s important for us to get to know the art scene. Often galleries are the ones that are pioneering and out there researching, because they are the only ones that have roots on the ground. They are really going to the studios, they are in the art schools, in the studios and they are the ones that are really finding the talent.
You also need to travel. It is easy to look at art on the internet but it’s impossible to make judgements that way. You can make a judgement only after you’ve seen it in person and have experienced the power of the original piece. There is no substitute for the physical engagement with art.
DR: There are two ways that we buy art. We buy art in terms of exhibitions we are doing. But also there are artists that we’re committed to that we’ve bought for 20 or 30 years and we can have anywhere from 40 to 100 pieces.
MR: We try to stay committed to the artists for as long as possible, for as long as it’s affordable.
We always buy art for the museum. The pieces always go to the space. We actually don’t even live with art, and if we do it’s only very rarely. Sometimes we’ll have an installation that is appropriate for our domestic situation. But we don’t think of our domestic space as an exhibition space. Once you present art in a museum context it’s difficult to domesticate it.

Do you always agree on the art that you buy?
MR: Well, that’s the fun part! We always have to build a consensus. At this moment in time it is Don and I and our son Jason. Our daughter is an artist herself. The three of us make those decisions. They are all unanimous and we never buy a work we don’t all agree on.
DR: As a matter of fact, in 47 years there is only one piece of art I ever bought without telling everybody else and the two of them made my life so miserable that I actually had to return the work!
MR: It adds an interesting dynamic and brings a lot to the understanding of a work of art. Each of us brings their own point of view. Even though we are from the same family, and you would think we are all on the same track, we are each very different, and that difference gives tremendous conversation. Building consensus adds to our understanding of the work we are committing to bringing into the collection.

How many pieces make up your collection?
MR: I would say we have between 4,000 and 5,000 pieces.
DR: We haven’t counted; we’d be afraid of buying any more!

Do you ever tire of pieces?
MR: That’s not what absorbs us. What really engages us is not what we should get rid of but what we should buy. We feel very fortunate to have the work we have.
DR: It’s like a relationship with a person. Do you have the same amount of affection for a friend all the time? No. But if you are patient, the affection will come back. And I think that happens with art. There are certain moments where certain pieces become more relevant.
MR: Art that seemed irrelevant can all of a sudden become part of the conversation.

Has your approach to collecting changed at all over the years?
MR: I think we are relentless. I think engaging our children has been hugely important. You always need fresh eyes and fresh opinions and you need to keep believing that tomorrow’s art is going to be just as good as today’s and yesterday’s. It’s never too late for creativity to exist. When people talk of creativity only existing in another time, it’s ridiculous because all art was contemporary at one time. We do believe that great art will be made today and tomorrow and the next day because great art is always addressing contemporary times. Man would have to stop living and breathing for ideas to stop. It would be the end of mankind if ideas were to stop.

From left to right: Piotr Uklanski, 'Untitled (American Eagle)', 2006; John Baldessari, 'Stake: Art is Food for Thought and Food Costs Money', 1985
From left to right: Piotr Uklanski, ‘Untitled (American Eagle)’, 2006; John Baldessari, ‘Stake: Art is Food for Thought and Food Costs Money’, 1985
From left to right: Richard Prince, 'Nuts', 2000; Peter Coffin, 'Sculpture Silhouette (J. Koons ‘Balloon Dog’ 1994- 2000)', 2009; Christopher Wool, 'Untitled', 2007; Frank Benson, 'Human Statue', 2005; Steven Shearer, 'Poems XII', 2005; Steven Shearer, 'Poems XVII', 2005; Elmgreen & Dragset, 'Crash...Boom...Bang!', 2008
From left to right: Richard Prince, ‘Nuts’, 2000; Peter Coffin, ‘Sculpture Silhouette (J. Koons ‘Balloon Dog’ 1994- 2000)’, 2009; Christopher Wool, ‘Untitled’, 2007; Frank Benson, ‘Human Statue’, 2005; Steven Shearer, ‘Poems XII’, 2005; Steven Shearer, ‘Poems XVII’, 2005; Elmgreen & Dragset, ‘Crash…Boom…Bang!’, 2008

Create a website or blog at