Rubell family transform their private collection into major museum complex

In the space of just a year, a former US Drug Enforcement Warehouse has been expanded to 40,000 square feet and now includes 18 new galleries, a conservation laboratory, a library and a sculpture garden


Miami. The Rubell Family Collection (RFC), housed in a former contraband warehouse of the US Drug Enforcement Agency in Miami’s Wynwood district, is already renowned as one of the world’s most important private collections of contemporary art, with over 6,000 works by internationally famous artists. But a major expansion of its somewhat unorthodox premises opening to the public on 1 December, has now provided the RFC with a home that is worthy of its museum-quality holdings.

In its new incarnation, designed by Allan T. Shulman architects and completed in a staggering 12 months, the exhibition space gains 18 new galleries and nearly doubles in size to an awesome 40,000 square feet, which means that a far greater proportion of works can be on show at any given time. The collection’s institutional aura is further enhanced by the addition of four specially designed “New media” rooms for viewing film and video installations, a sculpture garden, a state-of-the-art conservation laboratory and a new research library consisting of over 25,000 volumes.

However, any concerns that this metamorphosis will alter the highly personal feel of the RFC can be allayed by the fact that a crucial part of this redevelopment consists of a private residence for Don and Mera Rubell, who have long wanted to live with their collection.

“We’re building a playground for two adults behind the collection”, declares Don Rubell. “We were suffering from separation anxiety: we started together in New York and then we and the collection went our separate ways. Now we are rejoining forces—we want to be part of the art.”

The Rubell Collection went South in the mid-1990s when Don, a retired gynaecologist (and the brother of Studio 54 impresario Steve Rubell) and Mera, a former teacher involved in real estate and a key figure in the development of New York’s SoHo, left Manhattan to join their children, Jason and Jennifer, and to turn their attentions to the hotel business in Miami.

As well as acquiring the Albion, the Greenview and the Beach House Hotels, the Rubells also snapped up a former DEA warehouse which became the home for a burgeoning art collection that had long since outgrown the rooms of the Rubell’s Manhattan townhouse.

Right from the beginning when they purchased their first major pieces, a 1980 “Pre-new ‘Hoover Celebrity 111’” from the cold-water, four-storey walk-up apartment of the then-unknown Jeff Koons, and Francesco Clemente’s 1980 “Self-portrait inside outside” from the floor of the artist’s very rudimentary Italian studio, the experience of meeting artists in their studios has continued to lie at the core of their collecting, especially when buying the work of young artists.

The Rubells describe their collecting as “bi-modal”, declaring, “on the one hand, we collect young art and, on the other, we pursue artists that we’ve been collecting for a while, and continue to collect them as their career advances”. The collection therefore spans several generations, from classic pieces by Andre, Judd and Warhol to key works by Paul MacCarthy, Robert Gober, Mike Kelley and Charles Ray—including his eight-part “orgy” sculpture, “Oh! Charley, Charley, Charley...” (1992). The RFC’s vast checklist also encompasses extensive holdings of work by Keith Haring, Julian Schnabel, Cindy Sherman, Juan Muñoz and William Kentridge, as well as a wide range of younger artists such as Jake and Dinos Chapman, Damien Hirst, Thomas Demand, Cecily Brown, Chris Ofili and Zhang Huan, among many others.

The Rubells are eager that the hang of their newly-expanded building reflects all its various strands and, to this end the inaugural shows at the reopened RFC include a mini-retrospective devoted to “Collecting Richard Prince for 27 years”, as well as a substantial 10-year survey of Dresden-born painter Eberhard Havekost and an exhibition devoted to young Leipzig painters who have recently caught the collectors’ collective eye.

The Rubell children, Jason and Jennifer, have been closely involved in their parents’ purchases and Don Rubell describes the family collecting dynamic as “a four-person partnership: we each bring very individual voices, but it’s always a consensus at the end of the day”. When quizzed about how much the Rubell Family spends on art, their reply is cheerfully rueful: “Every penny we have and then a little bit extra! We try to restrict ourselves, but it lasts about 15 minutes. When the opportunity presents itself and you are offered a wonderful piece, you somehow just can’t say no.”

* All photographs are from Not afraid by Mark Coetzee (Phaidon Press, London £19.95, $29.95 ISBN 0714843989)