Private Museums of the World: Rubell Museum

An ambitious museum in the heart of Miami's art district
Since 1965, the Rubell Family Collection has had many homes, from a NY townhouse to the sprawling 100,000 sq. ft campus in Miami, transformed by Selldorf Architects.

by Nadezna SiganporiaPublished on : Jun 08, 2021

They were just a newlywed couple, Don and Mera Rubell, with a love for contemporary art; he a medical student and she a teacher who lived in New York City. Their first art purchase in 1965 was bought with whatever they could spare and on installment. Art became their passion and over half a century later, the Rubells’ have built one of the largest and most significant private collections of contemporary art in the world.

Don and Mera Rubell | Rubell Museum | Selldorf Architects | Private Museums of the World | STIRworld
Don and Mera Rubell Image: Courtesy of Rubell Museum

The ever-evolving collection encompasses 7,200 pieces by over 1000 artists from across the globe including Mumbai’s own, Jitish Kallat. “Studio visits are at the core of the Rubells’ collecting process along with countless visits to museums and galleries,” explains Juan Valadez, Director of the Rubell Museum, formerly called the Rubell Family Collection. “We approach art with the intention to preserve, share and learn. The innate desire of an artist to create fuels our desire to preserve. We believe the art we have on view is meaningful and we seek to highlight artists whose works touch on a diverse set of beliefs and experiences”.

Covered walkways surrounding the garden lead visitors to various public spaces and galleries | Rubell Museum | Selldorf Architects | Private Museums of the World | STIRworld
Covered walkways surrounding the garden lead visitors to various public spaces and galleries Image: Nicholas Venezia, Courtesy of Selldorf Architects

Since the very beginning, the couple has always championed emerging artists, searching for those talents early in their careers and those who have been overlooked, including Jean-Michel Basquiat, Cecily Brown, Keith Haring, Rashid Johnson, Hayv Kahraman, Jeff Koons, William Kentridge, Yoshitomo Nara, Cindy Sherman and Mickalene Thomas. What stays true till today is the way they go about finding art that resonates – they collect by travelling all over the world to visit studios, art spaces, fairs, galleries, biennials and museums as well as by conversing with artists, curators and gallerists. Valadez, the author of several books on the family’s art collection, continues, “We have so much to learn from artists young and old…it’s critical to stay open to new voices, ideas and ways of creating. We never walk into a studio with expectations of what the artist should or shouldn’t be making. Let the artists lead”.

Juan Valadez, Director of Rubell Museum, formerly called Rubell Family Collection | Rubell Museum | Selldorf Architects | Private Museums of the World | STIRworld
Juan Valadez, Director of Rubell Museum, formerly called Rubell Family Collection Image: Courtesy of Rubell Museum

The journey

From their New York City townhouse that was packed to the rafters with works, the couple moved their collection to Miami where they turned a former Drug Enforcement Agency building in the Wynwood district into a public viewing space for their art. For over 20 years, this remained their home until 2019, when Selldorf Architects transformed a 100,000 square foot former industrial campus in Miami’s multi-ethnic Allapattah district into a sprawling canvas for the diverse and deep collection. Helmed by Annabelle Selldorf, the firm created the museum through adaptive reuse of six, single-storeyed industrial structures. “We met with several talented architects but were most struck by Annabelle Selldorf’s incredible knowledge of contemporary art and desire to create the best possible spaces for contemporary art,” explains Valadez.

The original vocabulary of the industrial structures was thoughtfully maintained with subtle updates to transform the site into a museum | Rubell Museum | Selldorf Architects | Private Museums of the World | STIRworld
The original vocabulary of the industrial structures was thoughtfully maintained with subtle updates to transform the site into a museum Image: Nicholas Venezia, Courtesy of Selldorf Architects

The structure

The new museum features 40 galleries encompassing 53,000-square-feet; 65 per cent dedicated to long-term installations and 35 per cent to special exhibitions, all drawn from the collection. “We were originally looking for a new warehouse to store our growing collection. The site we found was a commercial operation selling bulk food items. After acquiring the site, which comprises six buildings occupying one city block, we suddenly realised this was an opportunity to engage with the community in a much larger way,” says Valadez. Instead of using the space to just store art, they decided to turn the space into a public museum. Selldorf, who has also worked with a number of famous art institutions like the Frick Collection, perfectly understood the needs of the space, especially of engaging with the public.

The restaurant at Rubell Museum | Rubell Museum | Selldorf Architects | | Private Museums of the world | STIRworld
The restaurant at Rubell Museum Image: Courtesy of Rubell Museum

The thoughtful architecture welcomes visitors with key elements like an inviting courtyard garden right at the entrance. “With Annabelle’s guidance we transformed the building and the surrounding area. The museum is situated around a beautiful garden we created by removing concrete from a massive truck parking area, a former loading dock. This garden, filled with native plants, also adjoins our restaurant, a critical part of the museum,” Valadez continues. 

Don Rubell walks the internal spine of the museum; to the left is art by Kehinde Wiley, in the background is a piece by Keith Haring | Rubell Museum | Selldorf Architects | Private Museums of the World | STIRworld
Don Rubell walks the internal spine of the museum; to the left is art by Kehinde Wiley, in the background is a piece by Keith Haring Image: Nicholas Venezia, Courtesy of Selldorf Architects

Another inviting element, one that enhances the viewing experience, is the decision to keep this a single-storeyed structure. A rare feature for city museums, especially those hosing such a vast collection, all the galleries are at ground level. This makes movement from one gallery to the other easy and experiencing the art seamlessly without the break of stairs or elevators. They also ensured that the museum was easily accessible from the public train system as well as to cyclists and pedestrians as the younger generations, especially millennials, don’t own cars.

A single-storied, 100,000 square foot former industrial campus was transformed by Selldorf Architects into the new home for the Rubell Museum | Rubell Museum | Selldorf Architects | Private Museums of the World | STIRworld
A single-storied, 100,000 square foot former industrial campus was transformed by Selldorf Architects into the new home for the Rubell Museum Image: Courtesy of Rubell Museum

The architecture

It was important to hold on to the original voice of the industrial buildings with subtle and sensitive updates that help serve the art. The six different structures with and abundance of column-free space were transformed into a cohesive whole with a 600-foot internal street or spine that effectively organises circulation and splits off into branches of galleries as well as the strategic insertion of windows to allow natural daylight into the space.

The internal spine that leads to different public spaces like the library and galleries | Rubell Museum | Selldorf Architects | Private Museums of the World | STIRworld
The internal spine that leads to different public spaces like the library and galleries Image: Nicholas Venezia, Courtesy of Selldorf Architects

Covered walkways flanking the garden lead visitors to the reception desk and restaurant. From there, the internal street leads west to the library and galleries, which eventually take you back to the street. “When you enter the museum, the lobby is modest, but as soon as you enter the central corridor, the spine of the museum, the museum opens itself up to the viewer,” he continues. To the east are the social spaces like the galleries and multi-purpose rooms for performances.

Crisp white walls and polished concrete floors run throughout the structures giving it a cohesive feel | Rubell Museum | Selldorf Architects | Private Museums of the World | STIRworld
Crisp white walls and polished concrete floors run throughout the structures giving it a cohesive feel Image: Courtesy of Rubell Museum

The galleries are a mix of intimate rooms to sprawling ones and gradually scale up as one winds their way along a clear route, orienting themselves with the spine. What brings the different spaces together are the cohesive interiors that lend well to visual continuity throughout the space. Crisp white walls and refinished concrete floors all bathed in soft natural light greet the visitor. “The museum’s architecture is in the service of the art on view, with neither overpowering the other… We tried to avoid the labyrinthine feel of many museums,” concludes Valadez.

Layout of the Rubell Museum | Rubell Museum | Selldorf Architects | Private Museums of the World | STIRworld
Layout of the Rubell Museum Image: Courtesy of Selldorf Architects

Private Museums of the World:
Curated by Pramiti Madhavji, STIR presents Private Museums of the World: an original series that takes you behind the scenes of privately-owned museums, sharing their origin with chats with art collectors, museum directors, curators and architects, who seamlessly come together to create the most unusual and amazing structures to host art collections.

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