RE:find Miami Art with the Rubells

David Prior

When Don and Mera Rubell started collecting art in 1964, their monthly budget was $25; it was all that the public school teacher and medical student could afford. In those early days in New York City, the young couple nurtured a limitless curiosity in art, building relationships with promising young artists in their social circle (Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat) and honing their gift for picking the new provocateurs.

Almost 50 years later, this inspiring couple now own one of the world's largest, privately owned contemporary art collections, The Rubell Family Collection. Housed within a 45,000-square-foot repurposed Drug Enforcement Agency confiscated-goods facility in the once-blighted Wynwood district, the collection has become a model private-public institution showing works from some of the great artists of our time. Pieces by Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, Cindy Sherman, Kara Walker, Ai Weiwei and Andy Warhol fill the space. Yet the Rubells' impact has been much more profound than the establishment of their own collection -- their trajectory as collectors is interwoven in the fortunes of Miami and how it became a major destination on the art map.

It wasn't so long ago that the suggestion of Miami as a destination for culture would have been a punchline. All that has changed dramatically, and much of it has to do with the vision and relentless energy of Don and Mera. Back in 1992 they saw a real estate opportunity in the run-down Deco buildings of Lincoln Road in South Beach. With successful restoration and renovation of properties, they invested more and more in Miami, making it their home and bringing their cool cache to the city. Their interest in art followed them from New York and they quickly began to champion local artists, delving deeper into areas of the city once considered no-go zones, like Wynwood, a place that is now dotted with galleries and home to young artists.

Perhaps their most inspired move (and certainly their most famous) was to help lure Art Basel, the internationally renowned art fair, to the city. With the promise of warm winter weather and a good time, the Rubells were instrumental in convincing the city of Miami and the Swiss organizers to stage a second event there every December. Art Basel Miami is now the largest and most influential fair of its kind in the world, attracting collectors, artists and the press alike to the weeklong party. It's an event that has helped change Miami and its image around the world.