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Keith Haring works from their Miami collection furnish a Palm Springs Art Museum exhibition.
By Suzanne Muchnic
November 23, 2008


Reporting from Palm Springs -- "The advantage of not being able to produce art is that you can spend all your energy looking at art," said Don Rubell, whose family of self-confessed contemporary art fanatics is perpetually in search of the next addition to its 5,000-piece collection. Pleased to have uttered a complete sentence without being interrupted by Mera, his wife and collecting partner of nearly 45 years, he eased into a knowing smile as she jumped in to explain how their collecting obsession works.

"To do what we do, we have to go everywhere, with rolling suitcases that we never check and wash-and-wear clothes, usually black," she said. "Here's our schedule for about two months: Beijing, Shanghai, Tokyo, London, Paris, New York, Washington, Los Angeles and here, then New York again and Abu Dhabi. We need to see what's going on in the world."

Miami is home to the globe-trotting Rubells, who are on ARTnews magazine's international list of the top 200 collectors. "Here" is Palm Springs, where they traveled for a special occasion -- the launching of a relationship between the Florida-based collection and the Palm Springs Art Museum with the recently opened exhibition, “Against All Odds: Keith Haring in the Rubell Family Collection.”

A museum's focus

The partnership is in its infancy, and no one would go on the record about what's next. But here's what Steven Nash, executive director of the museum, had to say: "We hope to have an ongoing tradition of excellence and great art brought from Miami."

It's a notable development for a regional outpost founded in 1938 as a museum about the desert. Long known as the Palm Springs Desert Museum, it has collected art -- including Western American paintings and sculpture, studio art glass, photography and Modern and contemporary works -- and presented exhibitions for many years. Eventually, the natural history component was phased out and the institution's name was changed to reflect its exclusive focus on art. The last big show featured realist paintings by D.J. Hall of Los Angeles. Coming attractions include a 20-year survey of paintings by Bay Area artist Wayne Thiebaud and photographic portraits by the late Robert Mapplethorpe.

The bicoastal association began serendipitously about a year and a half ago, Nash said, when he met Mark Coetzee, director of the Rubell Family Collection, who was visiting the desert community. Nash, who had recently taken charge of the Palm Springs museum and was overseeing its refurbishment, was open to new ideas. One conversation with Coetzee led to another until a plan shaped up.

The relationship was "evolutionary," Don Rubell said. "But when it occurred, it felt so good. It's like a marriage. You don't want to give your children to a home where they are not appreciated. And the home wants to feel that it is receiving something very worthwhile."

The Rubell Family Collection, which functions like a museum under the nonprofit Contemporary Arts Foundation, organizes traveling shows and frequently lends works from its holdings of art made from the 1960s to the present. Although the Miami institution has developed relationships with other museums, the Palm Springs association is the only one on the West Coast.

The inaugural show, organized by Coetzee in collaboration with the Palm Springs staff, emphasizes the intensely personal, expressive side of Haring, a close friend of the Rubells who died of complications of AIDS in 1990, at 31, and tends to be remembered as a lightweight Pop artist. Born and raised in Pennsylvania, he emerged as a public artist in New York -- churning out hundreds of chalk drawings while working in the subway system. Although he gained recognition as a fine artist, he is probably best known for his Pop Shop, a retail store in SoHo that sold T-shirts, toys, pins, posters and other items bearing trademark images of radiant babies, lightbulbs, angels and hearts.

Some of that spirit lives in the Palm Springs show, but it also has an ominous aspect. "The work is so accessible," Mera said, looking around the galleries. "It's so cheerful, so loving, so friendly. Yet the issues are of our time, tough issues."

A final work

The 70 paintings and drawings on view include bold reworkings of Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley posters, joyful celebrations of life and anguished outbursts about environmental destruction, consumerism, poverty, violence and racism. The single sculpture, an ode to New York made in 1982 with an artist known as LA II, is an 8-foot-tall Statue of Liberty painted in screeching hues and decorated with a black network of drawings, linear patterns and text. Works by Haring's friends, including Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat and George Condo, hang in an adjacent gallery.

Haring's final work, "Against All Odds," is a suite of drawings done in a single afternoon in 1989 and later published as a limited edition book. Cartoonish in style but terrifying in content, the images portray bodies stuffed into bottles, bare feet walking on upturned knife blades, the Earth falling into a garbage can of money or rain coming down on a sea of drowning people.

About three weeks before his death, in 1990, Haring wrote: "These drawings are about the Earth we inherited and the dismal task of trying to save it -- against all odds." He dedicated the works to Don's brother, Steve Rubell, who rose to fame as a proprietor of New York's Studio 54 nightclub, became a successful hotelier and died of AIDS in 1989.

A nod to Los Angeles

The Rubells' collection can be seen by the public in rotating exhibitions at their Miami headquarters, a 45,000-square-foot structure formerly used by the Drug Enforcement Administration as a warehouse for confiscated goods. "If you watched 'Miami Vice,' you know this building," Don said. "When we bought the building, there was a vault where they stored the cocaine."

Coetzee is preparing "30 Americans" -- an exhibition of works by African American artists in the Rubells' collection, including David Hammons, Robert Colescott and Lorna Simpson -- to open Dec. 3 in conjunction with Art Basel Miami Beach, the nation's leading contemporary art fair. A 2006 show, "Red Eye: L.A. Artists from the Rubell Family Collection," offered works by 37 artists, including Barbara Kruger, Catherine Opie, John Baldessari, Charles Ray, Paul McCarthy, Mike Kelley and Doug Aitken.

"Over the last 20 years," Don said, "Los Angeles has probably been the center of art in the United States, if not the world." Mera added: "Los Angeles has the perfect storm for making art -- the museums, the teaching institutions, a lifestyle that is still affordable for artists, a tremendous mix of cultures and a great history."

Unlike those large group shows, the Palm Springs event -- accompanied by a substantial catalog in Spanish and English -- points up the enduring relationships that the Rubells often establish with artists whose work they collect. It's a practice that began in New York, in 1964, "almost from the day we were married," Don said. Which is to say, as Mera does, before they routinely finished each other's sentences and talked at the same time.

"I was in medical school," said Don, who eventually became head of the gynecology department at Cabrini Medical Center in Manhattan. "Mera was teaching at a Head Start program. We got bored playing tennis, so we started going to galleries and became totally addicted. We spent the next two or three years reading everything we could and going to 50 or 100 galleries a week."

Then it was Mera's turn: "We actually created a budget for ourselves. I had a salary of $100 a week and we decided to allocate $25 a week to art."

Back to Don: "Then we made the brilliant discovery that people allow you to pay over time with no interest."

Mera again: "You have to be trustworthy. If you lose your credibility, it's over. But it's amazing what you can do. We never spent the $25 in one gallery. We spread it over five galleries. In those days, we bought Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince, Jeff Koons. We were fanatics. We still are, maybe more fanatical."

The art budget grew as Don established his medical practice and Mera went into business in sportswear and real estate. Their resources increased dramatically when the family inherited Steve Rubell's estate. Don and Mera moved from New York to Miami about 15 years ago and opened their exhibition space to the public in 1996. Their children, Jennifer and Jason, became involved in the collection as youngsters. Although Jennifer is no longer intimately engaged, Jason is an active participant and his wife, Michelle, recently joined the adventure.

The point of collecting contemporary art, Don said, is that "the artists give us an insight into our own time." The family especially likes to discover emerging artists and collect their work until it is no longer affordable, he said. "When you look at the work of a young artist, you are almost as interested in the future, the potential, as you are in that individual work. For us, it's also important to meet the person, get a sense of the character, the morality, who the person is."

As for deciding what to acquire, Mera offered this: "We look for artists who have something to say that hasn't been said before. The next piece we buy by an artist is always going to be a piece that has something to say beyond what the artist said before."

About half the time, the family members agree quickly. Otherwise, "we fight like dogs," she said. "Democracy is very nasty, but when it works, it brings together something very powerful."

Muchnic is a Times staff writer.

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