Inside the Rubell Museum, DC’s Newest Home for Contemporary Art

The inaugural exhibit honors DC-native Marvin Gaye with works by Keith Haring, Jenny Holzer, and more.

Published on 11/4/2022 at 1:57 PM

Rubell Museum Interior | Photo by Courtesy of the Rubell Museum

From limited-time exhibits and museums to the city's vibrant mural scene, DC is no stranger to great art. The city’s Smithsonian Museums alone—which encompass nine spaces dedicated to art including the Renwick, Hirshhorn, and more—would take at least a month of devoted viewing to fully take in. But a brand new museum promises to add something fresh, provocative, and entirely welcome to the District’s already robust museum landscape. Enter the Rubell Museum.

Located in a quiet stretch of southwest DC firmly between The Wharf and Navy Yard, DC’s newest museum opened its doors on October 29. Keeping with the city’s museum culture, the Rubell is free for DC residents and veterans, but out-of-town visitors will need to purchase a ticket for $15.

Exterior | Photo Courtesy of the Rubell Museum

The museum showcases the private collection of Don and Mera Rubell, a couple who began collecting contemporary art in 1965. Each piece in the collection has been hand selected by the Rubells. At the beginning of their art journey, the couple said they would only acquire works they could agree on, a mission Don Rubell says proved to be “an almost impossible task.” 

Yet for over half a century, the Rubells have grown their collection to include a staggering 7,400 pieces by more than 1,000 artists. Much of the vast collection follows artists as they respond to the contemporary moment, from the AIDS crisis and climate destruction to the Black Lives Matter movement.

Part of the collection is now housed in the historic former Cardozo Elementary School (which later became the Randall Junior High School), which was constructed in 1906 and expanded in 1927. The story-rich building has been extensively renovated yet maintains historic features like original hardwood floors that still bear the faint outlines of where school desks stood over the past century. The sweeping 32,000-square-foot building contains a series of light-filled and airy galleries that display the collection’s large-scale paintings and installations.

The museum is the second for the Rubells, who first began showcasing their pieces in 1993 in Miami. The DC museum is the result of decades of planning, careful restoration of the building, and strategic work to create an experience that will enrich the city and its community, while also creating another must-stop museum on the District’s tourist map. The Rubells tapped curator, gallerist, and longtime DMV resident, Caitlin Berry, to run the space.

The museum’s first show, “What’s Going On” gathers about 200 pieces by more than 50 different artists from the Rubells’ collection. The show is inspired by the former school building’s most famous student, Marvin Gaye—he sang in the school’s glee choir, and the auditorium where the club performed is now repurposed in the gallery. Visitors will recognize big names in the show like Kehinde Wiley, Jenny Holzer, and Keith Haring as well as artists from the DC-area and beyond.

“DC is a city of extremely talented artists, art administrators, civic works, as well as people who are passionate about art,” Berry says. And now there is one more museum where the city can see that talent shine.