Rubell Museum Respite: Mera Rubell and Thom Browne Talk Art Questions and Collecting Instincts

They covered everything from Madame X to exploring with Keith Haring.

[PRIVATE FOR APPROVALS] W Magazine -- Diane Solway in Conversation: with Mera Rubell and Thom Browne
Darian DiCianno/

At the newly opened Rubell Museum yesterday, Surface Magazine Editor-in-Chief Diane Solway, Mera Rubell, and Thom Browne spoke on a W Magazine panel about collecting instincts and art questions.

Rubell, a mere 48-hours after the opening of her family institution (where Dior Men had held its Pre-Fall 2020 show about 36 hours earlier), was in ebullient spirits: her initial remark, directed at the phalanx of Thom Browne staffers sat up front (all of whom were wearing suit-shorts) was: “There are a lot of knees up here. Sexy knees.”

Solway moderated while Browne and Rubell discussed art memories, inquiries and instincts. They both expressed a shared appreciation for the “invisible,” or rather, exploring the non-obvious valves and circuits of creative disciplines.

Browne, who debuted his own art in Miami (a 23-foot palm tree rendered in seersucker and gingham fabrics, taking the “American dream” to the extreme), recalled the first painting that cemented his interest in the field: John Singer Sargent’s Madame X, a striking, mysterious portrait of Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau that was completed between 1883 and 1884. (Ironically, the same such instance applies to this writer, who saw it as a third grader at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, and then recreated it, rather terribly, back at school).

Rubell would recount illegally exploring Harlem’s subway systems with Keith Haring, only to then meet Jean-Michel Basquiat in the process. She and her husband, Don, bought some of Basquiat’s earliest pieces—many of which are on display at the museum today. Rubell also mentioned that Haring designed the invitation to her son’s bar mitzvah, and that, with the threat of climate change that South Florida faces, she was not going to vacate Miami until it was under water. Yet maybe not even then: “I can swim,” she said.

It was a pleasant, calm morning, as Art Basel’s early, frantic days had mellowed out and temperatures had finally started to climb. After the panel, guests sipped Rock Angel Rose from Chateau D’Esclans at brunch and then perused the Rubell Museum’s long, myriad rooms, which were designed by Annabelle Selldorf.

The ribbon-cutting of the Rubell Museum, which is located in the Allapattah neighborhood of Miami, was this year’s Art Basel week highlight. It will be the rotating home of approximately 7,200 pieces; Mera and Don Rubell have been collecting art for over fifty years. And the size of their new complex justifies the number: there are forty galleries, a massive library, a shop, a performance space, and more. The footprint is about 100,000 square feet. To kick things off, the Rubell Museum has works on view by Haring, Yayoi Kusama, Raymond Pettibon, and Amoako Boafo (the Rubell’s current artist-in-residence, and the first to be working at the new site), among others.

Courtesy of the Rubell Museum and Selldorf Architects.

Rubell mentioned that, while their previous location (just about a mile away, in a former DEA building) was called the “Rubell Family Collection,” she and her husband wanted to switch the moniker to “Museum” to make their collection more public-friendly. It was met by some resistance from her adolescent and teenage grandchildren. “We will take ‘family’ out of the title, but we will not take the family out of the museum,” she said, eventually winning her grandkids over.

The most important takeaway from the event, and browsing the museum, was not the flagship art or the excitement of the new. Rubell declared that all of this, the whole art world, is really for nothing if not for the interactions that take place within it (she and Don are famous for early morning studio visits).

It’s about questions, ongoing engagement, and social inclusivity. This approach is what has led to the Rubell family achieving what they have.

“You never know,” concluded Rubell. “Always engage with who you can. The waiter. Or, the pall-bearer. But then of course, you might be dead.”