Collector Spotlight: Don and Mera Rubell On 60 Years of Marriage and Art

Despite housing one of the largest collections of contemporary art in the U.S., the Rubell Museum is still a family affair.

Man and woman dressed in black pose outside of building on steps
Mera and Don Rubell at the Washington, D.C., campus of the Rubell Museum. Shuran Huang for The Washington Post via Getty Images

Don and Mera Rubell first met in the early 1960s in the library of Brooklyn College. The duo, now aged 83 and 80 respectively, sat at the same table for six months without saying a word to each other. “Then he says, would you marry me?” Mera tells Observer.

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When they revisited the library 50 years later, they were astonished to discover that their initial meeting had taken place on the art floor. “We didn’t know at the time, because neither one of us had anything to do with art,” says Mera. She was a psych major at Brooklyn College, while Don was a mathematics graduate from Cornell.

Today, however, art is very much a part of their lives. The Rubells oversee one of the preeminent collections of contemporary art in the U.S., with 7,400 works by more than 1,000 artists, and they have a widely acknowledged and well-earned reputation as spotters of young talent. “We’ve only had one week where we haven’t owed the art world money,” Don tells Observer. What’s less well-known is just how much their relationship is at the heart of their collecting activities. Don and Mera will celebrate 60 years of marriage and 59 years of buying art this year, and they aren’t planning on slowing down anytime soon.

The Rubells’ humble beginnings

They fell into art collecting while living in Chelsea, where the couple walked around the studio-filled neighborhood in between breaks of studying and began building relationships with the artists working and living there. “At some point, they said, ‘Well why don’t you buy something?'” recalls Mera. But with Don attending medical school and Mera working as a teacher on a $100 weekly salary, they didn’t have an art collector’s budget. So they agreed to begin acquiring works in the $50 to $100 range by putting aside funds for modest payment plans.

After relocating to Miami from New York in the 1990s, the couple now sustain their passion for art through real estate. They run Rubell Hotels, which Mera describes as “a day job to pay for the collecting.” And as for the collecting? Masterpieces by the likes of Kehinde Wiley, Yayoi Kusama Damien Hirst and Takashi Murakami can be seen at their Rubell Museum, a private art institution with locations in Miami and Washington, D.C.

The idea to open their collection to the public came from the Rubells’ son Jason, who alongside his artist sister, Jennifer, got the art bug from his parents. As a young teen, Jason acquired his first piece—a painting by the then-rising star George Condo—with a payment plan funded by a tennis racket-stringing business. He went on to study art history at Duke, where his senior project focused on how private collections become public museums. “That was the seed that got us involved,” says Mera. “He was so seduced by the idea of these private collectors becoming public institutions that he encouraged us to do the same.”

In 1993, they opened what was then known as the Rubell Family Collection in a two-story warehouse formerly used for storage by the Drug Enforcement Agency in Miami’s Wynwood area. The area’s transformation from a once-underdeveloped neighborhood into a leading arts district is often credited to the Rubells, who also played a role in convincing Art Basel leaders to bring the fair to Miami Beach. To keep up with their growing collection, Don and Mera moved the renamed Rubell Museum to an expanded space in the Allapattah district of Miami—another neighborhood that has seen a proliferation of arts spaces and increasing gentrification in recent years. In 2022, they opened a Washington, D.C., outpost in a former school once attended by Marvin Gaye.

The Rubell collection is built on consensus

Couple hug in front of large mural
The couple were early collectors of artists like Keith Haring. Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Despite having been in the art collecting game for more than half a century, the Rubells continue to focus on truly contemporary work. “A lot of collectors fixate on their generation and they stick with that generation,” says Mera. “All of a sudden, 50 years later, you wake up and say, ‘Oh my god, I’m only focused on artists that are dying or dead.'”

They primarily focus on work by young artists and those who haven’t yet received mainstream recognition—the same tactic they applied when becoming early collectors of now-famed artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Cindy Sherman. “The dream and the fantasy is really to find the new Basquiat. And there always is a new Basquiat,” says Mera. The couple pointed to the French-Senegalese Alexandre Diop and Havana-born Alejandro Piñeiro Bello, as well as several young Los Angeles-based artists, as emerging talents to keep an eye on. While the Rubells try not to sell their artwork, they occasionally deaccession pieces to fund the acquisition of new ones.

Don and Mera say they are offered the best works by artists and gallerists who know it will be shared with the public. “They don’t want you to hide it in your basement, they want to show other people,” says Don. The couple is known for their intensive approach to art acquisition, which involves studio visits, in-depth conversations with artists and a rule that Don, Mera and their son Jason must unanimously agree on every purchase. If even one family member vetoes, the acquisition is a no-go. The three bring different strengths to the table, according to Mera, who describes herself as “more impulsive,” while Don focuses on research and Jason brings an art history perspective.

“I would say 50 percent of the time, we agree immediately, and 50 percent of the time, it’s a bloody battle,” says Don. The trio has only broken protocol once, when Don viewed a work he considered “absolutely fantastic” but his wife and son weren’t quite as enthusiastic about. “I bought the work without consulting everybody, and then Mera and Jason made my life so miserable that it was the only time we canceled,” he recalls.

Consensus also shapes how the Rubells operate as a couple. “It’s frightening when someone is out of control passionate about something and has the checkbook to spend it,” says Mera, adding that their process is reflective of how they started their life together. “It could have been his money, my money or our money. And it became our money,” she says. “So if we’re going to collect art, that decision has to be in the ‘we,’ not with an ‘I.'”

Art as a multigenerational affair

The art collectors also seek input from their daughter Jennifer, who chooses not to participate in their collecting activities but still participates in acquisition conversations, and their five grandchildren. “We have the eyes of different generations looking at the work,” says Don. “Ultimately, the history of what this work will be depends on a lot of different eyes, thousands of eyes, looking at a piece of work over time. So this is a very unfair advantage over others.”

Silicone cast of mattress hanging on gallery wall
Kaari Upson, Rubells, (2014). Courtesy the Rubell Museum

When it comes to the future of the Rubell Museum, both Don and Mera concede that they “won’t live forever.” They’re hopeful that their children and grandchildren will continue as stewards of the collection. Although “we’d be very upset if it became a chore for the next generation, or the generation after that,” adds Don. “They have to have the joy that we have.”

But for now, the Rubells are happy to continue pursuing fresh talent and experimenting with new programs. A recent collaboration with theater company Miami New Drama, for example, saw playwrights stage shows inspired by and performed in front of artwork hanging in the Miami Rubell Museum. One of the dramatic works centered on the 2014 piece Rubells by the late Kaari Upson, who was commissioned to create a portrait of Don and Mera for their 50th anniversary. Instead of photographing the collectors for a traditional painting, she asked for the couple’s shared mattress and cast it in silicone. The Rubells describe the journey their anniversary portrait took from mattress to play as “a way to understand what art does to the brain and imagination.”

It can also be seen as mirroring their own journey in the art world, which has strengthened their marriage instead of strained it. “My story is not about a successful woman with a vision to make something happen,” says Mera. “My story is really about how to make something happen inside of a relationship. And then, by extension, inside of a family.”

Collector Spotlight: Don and Mera Rubell On 60 Years of Marriage and Art