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What the Rubell Museum DC will bring to DC's robust art landscape

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What does it mean to open a new museum in Washington, DC, a city with an already full museum landscape? For Don and Mera Rubell, who have been collecting art since 1965 and have a namesake museum in Miami, it means another dream fulfilled. For curator and gallerist Caitlin Berry, it means creating space for art that speaks to this moment.

Berry, 35, is the director of the Rubells’ new museum, the Rubell Museum DC, which opens Saturday at 65 I St. SW, a building that started as Cardozo Elementary School in 1906 and became Randall Junior High School in 1927. There are 24 galleries in the 32,000 square feet of space, showcasing some of the Rubells’ nearly 8,000 works of contemporary art by more than 1,000 artists. Berry will oversee exhibitions and installations in partnership with Juan Roselione-Valadez, the director of the Rubell Museum Miami, and will also focus on community engagement.

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The new museum’s first exhibition, “What’s Going On,” takes its title from the former school’s most famous pupil, Marvin Gaye, and will explore such social and political issues as climate change and the Black Lives Matter movement. Some of the art will be on public view for the first time.

Ahead of the museum’s opening, we sat down with Berry, previously the director of the Cody Gallery at Marymount University in Arlington, to talk about the collection, how art and politics can speak to one another, and what it’s been like to help bring another museum to the District.

Q: Why the Rubell, why now and what will the museum bring to Washington’s robust museum landscape?

HAS: I’ve never been more excited about art in DC than at this very moment in time. We’re stepping into a landscape of incredibly esteemed colleagues on the National Mall and elsewhere whose collections span civilizations and time and different artistic movements, and who are creating incredibly diverse experiences for their audiences. The Rubell represents a different dimension in this landscape because we’re focused exclusively on the art of today. When audiences walk into our museum, they can expect to feel electrified and challenged and asked to think differently about their world via artwork created by artists who have a vast array of different lived experiences. …

DC is at this kind of precipice of an explosion of its creative community that’s been burgeoning for so long. The creative community here is starting to be recognized on an international and national stage in a way that perhaps it wasn’t before. Galleries are opening here. Studio spaces for artists are becoming more available. Developers here are becoming more aware of the need for studio space for artists, which is the foundational element that leads into galleries being able to flourish, museums being able to flourish. The arrival of the Rubell Museum at this moment in time, it just couldn’t be more kismet, or meant to be, because it elevates the community here in a really unique way.

Q: It is also recognition that Washington is about more than just politics.

HAS: That’s right. Politics and art intersect, of course. The conversation that occurs in this city between culture and politics and international discourse is really unique to Washington. If the museum opens its doors and [Capitol] Hill staffers walk through and something they see ignites something in them to think about policy differently … our job is done totally.

Q: The museum will be free for DC residents. Is any site-specific programming or curation planned?

HAS: Each exhibition that comes through the museum is curated with a DC audience in mind, and we’re very thoughtful and collaborative in our process. I work with my wonderful colleague Juan Roselione-Valadez, who’s the director in Miami, and with the Rubell family, to create these exhibitions that are specific to our DC audience. We have a sharp attention to Ward 6 and Southwest DC … and want to acutely honor the history of the museum’s building and its many different uses over the years. Not only was it a school … but it served as a center for artist studios, a homeless shelter and a social services center, and has been the hub of this community for so long. When it fell into disrepair, the Rubells saw this beautiful opportunity to bring this community resource back to life via art.

Q: So many old schools in Washington have been turned into condos, so it’s incredible to see this building being given back to the community. What was the renovation process like?

HAS: The project of converting the building into a museum has been closed to 15 years in the making, so this has been something that the Rubells, our partners, developers and the city have been working on and advocating for a very long time. The building had fallen into complete disrepair and had to be outfitted with an HVAC system that could maintain the appropriate conditions for priceless works of art.

We’ve maintained the original brickwork in the auditorium where Marvin Gaye once sang on the stage. The floors are the original pine floors. And because we’ve maintained these floors, when you walk into the galleries, you can kind of see where desks once were. So it creates this kind of astonishing environment where the artists and the artwork on the walls become the teachers again in these environments. It took a lot of love and devotion from many different people and professionals to bring this building back to its current use.

Q: And now the museum’s first exhibition is named for the Marvin Gaye song “What’s Going On.” What can we look forward to in that show?

HAS: Marvin Gaye was a graduate of Randall Junior High School and sang in the glee club while he was there. As the Rubells were considering which works to include in our inaugural exhibition, it became clear that one in particular, a suite of works on paper by Keith Haring that was made in 1989, and has a beautiful inscription, tied in perfectly to the history of the school. That is because the works on paper were made in dedication to Steve Rubell, who was Don Rubell’s brother who passed away from AIDS-related complications, and was the co-owner of Studio 54. In these notes that Keith Haring is writing, he says that for the first two hours he was making this work, he was listening to Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” over and over again, and he’s considering the fraught moment he’s living in 1989 when the AIDS epidemic is ravaging New York City.

Climate change issues are starting to come to the fore. Social change is occurring rapidly. And so this kind of narrative suite of works on paper is almost stream of consciousness, but addresses many of the issues that we’re still grappling with today. So to be able to bring this work of art that has so many ties to the Rubells and to Marvin Gaye and to inside this museum, I mean, it’s really momentous to be able to present it as part of the exhibition. And the other roughly 90 works in the show are by 37 artists who are practicing on a global stage from all over the world, the United States and outside, who are responding to these critical issues that we are grappling with as a society today.