“Opening a new contemporary art museum in a city not known for contemporary art would at first seem foolhardy, if not downright reckless,” said Robin Pogrebin in The New York Times. But as art collectors, Mera and Donald Rubell and their children “have never played it safe.” The family has often bet on unproven artists as it has amassed more than 7,500 pieces and created “one of the largest and most important collections of contemporary art in the country.” The Rubell Museum Miami, opened in 1993, played a key role in establishing Miami as a hub for contemporary art. Now the Rubells have extended their reach by creating a satellite institution a mile from the National Mall in southwest Washington, D.C. It opened to fanfare late last month. Whether the Rubell Museum DC will join the National Gallery of Art and the Hirshhorn as a major arts destination “remains to be seen.”
Already, though, the museum “has found its niche in the capital’s museum ecosystem,” said Philip Kennicott in The Washington Post. The Rubells, who truly are better known for their artistic judgment than for their wealth, have christened their “splendid” new museum with an inaugural show that signals a willingness to be provocative. The exhibition takes its name, “What’s Going On,” from the classic 1971 album by Marvin Gaye, who was once a student in the long-shuttered public school that the museum occupies. Fifty artists are represented by 190 works, and the tone is set by a room filled with a 1989 series of drawings that Keith Haring said he created while listening to Gaye’s mournful songs about human carelessness. “Haring’s aesthetic—bold, clear, political, and passionate—recurs throughout the museum.” As you wander past a photo series by Hank Willis Thomas, smart installations by Matthew Day Jackson and John Miller, or a massive figure painting by Kehinde Wiley, “the tone is serious, but not dispiriting.” Sobering messages are punctuated by “moments of radiance and poetry.”
“The District hasn’t had an institution like the Rubell Museum in years, one oriented toward the city, not the National Mall,” said Kriston Capps in ArtNet.com. Even amid the many world-renowned artists on display, local artists provide notable highlights. A suite of dark impasto abstractions by Sylvia Snowden, a former Howard University instructor, has instantly become “one of the city’s must-see art rooms.” And although a museum show that reflects the progressive politics of D.C.’s residents “isn’t exactly rare,” it is unusual to see a show so attuned to the moment that it can weave in art that created buzz in a New York exhibition only weeks earlier. Time will tell if the museum can sustain a deep engagement with its neighborhood. So far, though, the Rubell “feels like a promise.