Washington, D.C., has no shortage of museums and exhibits that highlight the history and art of the United States and its people.
But a new home for Don and Mera Rubell’s contemporary art collection centers the culture and energy of artists and the city in a repurposed space.
The Rubells have been collecting contemporary art pieces since 1965, according to Rubell Museum DC director Caitlin Berry, and they already have an existing museum in Miami.
But in October, the D.C. location opened at Randall Junior High School. Previously known as Cardozo Elementary School, it was a historically Black public school that opened in 1906 and closed in 1982, spending decades as a homeless shelter at the heart of the Southwest community.
In 2010, the Rubells purchased the building, which was then used as an artists’ studio, to preserve the historic building and house their art collection in partnership with Mayor Muriel Bowser and the Deputy Mayor’s Office for Planning and Development.
Berry said the Rubells had loved the city since it became the center of the Civil Rights Movement.
According to Berry, Mera Rubell, one of the founders of the museum and art collection, took a “Freedom Riders” bus with famous singer Harry Belafonte to the March on Washington in 1963 to hear Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak.
“I think it became very evident then,” Berry said, “that there were these dialogues taking place here in the nexus of political power that was not necessarily happening in this way anywhere else in the country.”
She said that the Rubells were inspired by the epicenter of cultural changes and the rich history of the community in D.C., which is front and center in their inaugural exhibit “What’s Going On?”
The exhibit is named after the 1971 hit song from Motown singer and D.C. native Marvin Gaye, who graduated from Randall Junior High in 1954.
Fifty artists worldwide contributed to the exhibit, but the spotlight belongs to Keith Haring’s 20 pieces titled “Against All Odds.”
Berry said the paintings in the Haring collection were made in memory of Steve Rubell, Don Rubell’s brother and co-owner of the famous New York City nightclub Studio 54, who died of AIDS-related complications in 1989, the same year that Haring created his works.
Haring died a year later, in 1990, of the same illness.
When walking into the exhibit, Gaye’s song “What’s Going On” plays in the background. Haring’s notes about his art as he made it are on display, which comment on various social issues artists and creatives were fighting for at the time, as well as the song’s inspiration on his piece.
On October 3, 1989, Haring wrote, “Sometimes music is a ‘background’ for drawing, but sometimes it becomes an essential part of the creation of the work.”
“He’s contemplating the future of our planet, and he said the dismal task of trying to save it against all odds,” Berry said. “He’s thinking about climate change and racial justice and all of these critical topical issues that we’re still grappling with today. And so that work really serves as the fulcrum around which the rest of the exhibition moves.”
For Berry, her favorite part of the new museum is their second exhibit by local artist and Howard University alumna Sylvia Snowden.
Snowden’s art is well known for themes of motherhood and the lives of her Northwest DC neighbors in Shaw.
In 2000, her collection of works about the murder of her son in 1993 was displayed in the Corcoran Gallery of Art at George Washington University.
However, the current Sylvia Snowden exhibit shows a different side of motherhood by depicting Snowden’s relationship with her daughter.
Berry said she could relate to the themes of these works since she is currently pregnant with her first child.
It defies logic, the sort of emotional connections one can form with art,” she said. “And I think that that was really the entire goal behind the opening of this museum: Every kind of person is represented in D.C. To give those folks an opportunity to form emotional connections with contemporary art is everything to the Rubells and to me.”
While the Rubell Museum has some fierce competition from other existing museums, Berry said they are the only ones currently focused solely on contemporary art.
Rob Berger, 58, is a self-proclaimed “museum addict.” He said he moved to D.C. for the abundance of museums and appreciated the use of the old school as a “canvas” for the art.
“The museums here are world-class,” he said. “I’m from the Midwest, and we have great museums there but not as many unbelievable masterpieces lined up.”
Berry said the Southwest community, including some former Randall alumni, has come to visit the new space.
Adriana Diaz, 22, grew up in D.C. but recently moved to Harrisburg, Penn., with her boyfriend, Mark Ray.
They said they’ve gone to many museums together but instantly became “big fans” of the Rubell because of the diversity represented in the art.
“I think it’s cool because it seems that there’s a lot of Black artists and you don’t see that in a lot of museums, so that’s one of the coolest things that I’ve noticed,” said Ray.
Diaz said her favorite part of the Rubell is the unique array of pieces and the inclusion of different mediums.
“I think the art here is very abstract compared to a ‘normal museum,'” she said. “I think it fits a lot of sculpture and paintings and photographs, not just so much focused on a specific theme.”
Installation pieces, sculpture and canvas are all represented in the Rubell DC.
The Rubell family is known for investing in new artists, which they have done since the small beginnings of their art collection.
Berry said she hoped the museum could showcase new talent in the space for years to come.
“What’s Going On?” and “Sylvia Snowden” will be available for viewing long term into the new year.