Kinshasha Holman Conwill serves as the museum’s deputy director. Prior to joining NMAAHC she was an arts, museum, and management consultant where her projects included acting as senior policy advisor
Dr. Kellie Jones is Associate Professor in Art History and Archaeology and the Institute for Research in African American Studies (IRAAS) at Columbia University. Her research interests include African American and African Diaspora artists, Latino/a and Latin American Artists, and issues in contemporary art and museum theory.
The Rubell Family Collection is groundbreaking for many reasons. The collection spans the last few decades in contemporary art and is practically unmatched in sheer size and volume. Not fearing controversy or difficult subjects, many pieces in the collection endeavor to send strong social, political, and/or religious commentary.
However, one of the most groundbreaking aspects of the collection is the approach its founders have taken towards art collection.
When they started collecting art in the early 1960s, Don Rubell was still a medical student and Mera Rubell was just starting out as a teacher in New York. They allotted 25 percent of Mera’s monthly budget towards the purchase of original art. In this way, they grew their collection slowly by focusing on art they could afford, investing in young, up-and-coming artists. While their financial circumstances changed in 1989 after inheriting the estate of Don’s brother and co-creator of Studio 54, Steve Rubell, the Rubells’s approach to collecting remained the same. The new wealth only allowed these collectors to expand their scope and include international works from budding young artists.
While the collection may not contain any of the old masters, it certainly does contain many important works of art. Through their discerning taste and enthusiastic collecting, their efforts have yielded some success stories. Including a Cindy Sherman photograph purchased for just $25 and now valued at more than $250,000.
Over the past fifty years, the collection has swelled to include more than 1,500 pieces by renowned artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, Kara Walker, and Andy Warhol. It includes paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs, installation, and video art. It is an incredibly thorough collection that spans every major movement in contemporary art of the last few decades.
Although they have become art stars in their own right, the Rubell Collection is still a (mostly) family business. With the help of their children, Jason and Jennifer, the Rubell clan continues to lovingly scout out and work with emerging talent across the globe.
Perhaps most importantly, the Rubells do not keep their magnificent collection to themselves. Their collection is housed in a former Drug Enforcement Administration storage warehouse in Miami and is open to the public from mid-December through early August of each year. Additionally, the Rubells are widely credited with helping to revitalize this once undervalued area of Miami. As their brand continues to grow (the family business also includes hotels in Miami, Washington DC, and Baltimore), so does the Rubells’ impact as each community they choose to invest in receives a boost of energy and activity.
In the fifty years since the collection was founded, Donald and Mera Rubell, have revitalized the art scenes in Miami and other cities, started a new trend in art collecting by encouraging others to take their proactive approach and share their private collection with the public. They have preserved countless pieces of art for future generations, and, in the process, transformed their own lives.
“Rubell Family Collection / Contemporary Arts Foundation.” Rubell Family Collection. N.p., n.d. Web. 31 May 2014. <http://www.rfc.museum/about-us>.
Buchanan, John. “Rubell Family Art Collection.” South Beach Magazine. N.p., 14 May 2002. Web. 31 May 2014. <http://www.southbeachmagazine.com/rubell-family-art-collection/>.
McCauley, Mary Carole. “Art Collector Mera Rubell Tours 37 Baltimore Art Studios in 36 Hours.” Baltimore Sun. N.p., 06 Jan. 2014. Web. 31 May 2014. <http://articles.baltimoresun.com/2014-01-06/entertainment/bs-ae-36-studios-20140104_1_rubell-family-collection-mera-rubell-art-scene>.
Fisher, Marc. “The Rubells: Art Collectors with Edge Make D.C. Their Own.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 01 Oct. 2011. Web. 31 May 2014. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/the-rubells-art-collectors-with-edge-make-dc-their-own/2011/09/19/gIQAqnjkAL_story.html>.
Collecting piece by piece over period of more than fifty years, Vivian Hewitt and her late husband John were able to assemble what has become one of the most comprehensive and unique collections of African-American art.
The expansive collection includes works by renowned artists such as Romare Bearden, Henry Ossawa Tanner, Elizabeth Catlett, Jonathan Green, Jacob Lawrence, Ann Tanksley, Hale Woodruff and more.
Their life as collectors started modestly enough: the newlywed couple was looking for ways to decorate their faculty suite and while on their honeymoon in New York, they picked up a Picasso print from a museum. This simple purchase ignited what would become a lifelong passion for art collection and a cornerstone of the couple’s relationship.
Soon after, the Hewitts began collecting artwork from their travels in the Caribbean and Mexico. After settling in New York City in the 1950s, the Hewitts quickly immersed themselves in the local art scene, forming the long-lasting friendships that would become their collection’s greatest source. When the couple realized that these talented artists were not receiving mainstream gallery attention, the Hewitts decided to take a more active role.
Although they were working professionals of rather modest income – Vivian was a librarian and John was a teacher and freelance writer – the two made a point of buying artwork they loved and that held some significance to them as a couple. Over the course of their marriage, the Hewitts celebrated each birthday, anniversary, or other occasion by giving each other an original piece of art. Thus, the collection that they have amassed demonstrates not only their keen eye and superb taste but it also reflects the deep love and appreciation that the two shared for one another.
When John’s health started to weaken in the late 1990s, the Hewitts began looking for a prospective buyer to take their entire collection. As fortune would have it, the Bank of America Foundation was looking to purchase some artwork as part of their recent partnership with the Mint Museum in Charlotte, NC. The foundation decided to take the entire collection of almost sixty paintings. Over the next few years, the collection toured through major cities in the United States before returning to its permanent home in the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts+Culture.
Through this partnership, the Hewitts are not only able to educate visitors as to the importance of these often overlooked masterpieces, but they are also able share their experience as collectors. Demonstrating to a wider audience that one does not have to be rich or of a certain class in order to build a world-class collection of art; all it takes is great passion and dedication.
“Collections: The John and Vivian Hewitt Collection of African-American Art.” The Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture. N.p., n.d. Web. 31 May 2014. <http://www.ganttcenter.org/web/page.asp?urh=sp_collections>.
Uslan, Rachel. “Eyes for Each Other, and for Painting.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 04 Feb. 2001. Web. 31 May 2014. <http://articles.latimes.com/2001/feb/04/entertainment/ca-20857>.
Linn, Virginia. “African-American Art Collector Vivian Hewitt Recalls How Works Were Found.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. N.p., 18 Jan. 2001. Web. 31 May 2014. <http://www.post-gazette.com/ae/art-architecture/2011/01/18/African-American-art-collector-Vivian-Hewitt-recalls-how-works-were-found/stories/201101180180>.
Dr. Walter O. Evans purchased his first works of art in 1978 – a portfolio of serigraphs by Jacob Lawrence called “The John Brown Series.” This significant acquisition, as it would prove to be, was the start of Dr. Evans newfound passion – collecting art.
In the intervening 36 years, the retired Detroit surgeon has been able to amass a private collection of more than 500 objects including paintings, sculptures, and photographs spanning some 150 years.
Dr. Evans’ interest in art began as a young sailor stationed in Philadelphia when a date invited him to visit the city’s art museum. From that moment onward, wherever he went, museum-going became a vital piece of Dr. Evans’s life.
Around the time that he began collecting, Dr. Evans realized that American museums were either not collecting or not showing art by African American artists. Soon after this realization, sharing and highlighting the talent and skill of his fellow African-Americans became a very deliberate quality of his collecting habits.
Over the years, Dr. Evans’ collection has expanded to include works from such luminaries as Henry Ossawa Tanner, the first African-American painter to gain international acclaim; acclaimed collagist, Romare Bearden; as well as Robert Thompson, Elizabeth Catlett, Aaron Douglas, Alma Thomas, and more. Additionally, Evans has also become one of the foremost collectors of Jacob Lawrence’s artwork.
Delatiner, Barbara. “Interest in Black Art Just Grew and Grew.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 29 Jan. 2000. Web. 31 May 2014. <http://www.nytimes.com/2000/01/30/nyregion/interest-in-black-art-just-grew-and-grew.html>.
Savannah College of Art and Design. The Walter O. Evans Foundation for Art and Literature and Dr. Walter O. Evans Donate African-American Artwork to the Savannah College of Art and Design. The Walter O. Evans Foundation for Art and Literature and Dr. Walter… N.p., n.d. Web. 31 May 2014. <http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/the-walter-o-evans-foundation-for-art-and-literature-and-dr-walter-o-evans-donate-african-american-artwork-to-the-savannah-college-of-art-and-design-53150662.html>.
“Dr. Walter Evans, Art Collector.” Interview by Lala Jackson. Who Made You Great. N.p., 31 Oct. 2010. Web. 31 May 2014. <http://whomadeyougreat.com/2010/10/13/dr-walter-evans-art-collector/>.
“African American Art from the Walter O. Evans Collection.” African American Art from the Walter O. Evans Collection. N.p., n.d. Web. 31 May 2014. <http://www.dia.org/exhibitions/woe/preview.asp>.