Q&A

An Art Collector's Guide to Art Basel Miami Beach, With Don Rubell

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An Art Collector's Guide to Art Basel Miami Beach, With Don Rubell
Mera and Don Rubell

As one half of Miami’s most prominent art-collecting couple, hotel entrepreneur Don Rubell has seen his adoptive city’s breakneck evolution from a crime-riddled drug capital to one of the world’s premiere destinations for contemporary art—a transformation that he and his wife, Mera, have been instrumental in bringing about. Known for their all-black attire and passionate engagement with cutting-edge art, the Rubells began collecting when they married in 1964 and have since amassed a tremendous catalogue of work that they exhibit at their Rubell Family Collection, a sweeping exhibition space in Wynwood.

The couple collects the artists they favor in depth—leading to rich holdings of work by important artists like Jason Rhodes and Cady Noland, as well as rising stars like Thomas Houseago—and produce museum-quality exhibitions, like the seminal 2009 show “30 Americans” that went on to travel to the Corcoran Gallery of Art and other institutions. This week the Rubell Family Collection will open two new exhibitions timed to the fairs: a group show of 31 artists titled "Alone Together" and a solo survey of Oscar Murillo. To better understand how a major collector approaches a fair like Art Basel Miami Beach (a source of no few works in the Rubells’ collection), we spoke to Don Rubell about his strategy.

At right, see works from Artspace's own Art Basel Miami Beach collection.

As a collector, what do you look for at an art fair?

Our greatest thrill at the fair is to find the work of an artist that we either did not know or knew very little about before. In addition, we are always looking to add works by artists we are particularly committed to.

How do you navigate an art fair? Where do you go first? Who do you talk to?

Usually our first stop is at those galleries who have brought works specifically for us and which we feel obligated to look at as early as possible, so that if we don’t purchase it other people have the opportunity to do so. Once we have looked at these galleries, we try to approach it in a pseudo-scientific manner, looking at the map and coming up with a route that will allow us to look at all the galleries by the day’s end. On our first walkthrough, we try not to speak to anyone unless we come across something that is particularly pressing—the point of this walkthrough is to familiarize us with the possibilities at the fair. If we do speak with anyone, we try to speak with someone at the gallery who we know or the principal at the gallery.

Do you conduct any research before heading to the fair? If so, what kind?

On occasion, we might email a gallery showing the work of an artist we are interested in. Other times, the galleries send us a list of the works they are bringing to the fair. Most often, the fairs are a learning experience, and we prefer to look at work we knew nothing about prior to the fair.

What considerations guide you to make a purchase?

Unless it’s a work by an artist that we know a great deal about, we usually ask to see slides of the artist’s other work and will often peruse the artist’s biography provided by the gallery. If after this we are still interested in the work, we have to reach a consensus. Most of the time we travel as a family pack. If not, we have to rely on our iPhones to round up our posse.

When you make a purchase, how does the conversation go? How do you negotiate prices?

The first step is asking if the piece is available. Then we ask the price, and if any negotiation is possible. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. We try to obtain the best price possible.

How important is it to attend the VIP vernissage? Why?

We feel it is very important to attend the vernissage because oftentimes it is at the vernissage that the greatest number of commitments are made, and it’s frustrating if the pieces we are interested in have already been spoken for.

What are some of the best discoveries you have made at art fairs?

Quite honestly, there are too many to count. First is Paul McCarthy’s MoCA Man that we purchased when we saw it in 1992 at Galerie Krinzinger. Another was Andro Wekua’s wonderful What Is Your Name, My Child? that we found in 2004 at the Peter Kilchmann Gallery. This was an artist we had seen at previous fairs, had always intrigued us, but we had never committed. Then we bought a number of his pieces.

What art-fair acquisition are you proudest of? When and where?

Probably the aforementioned acquisitions of Paul McCarthy and Andro Wekua. Also, Takashi Murakami’s DOB in the Strange Forest from Blum & Poe in 1999 at Art Basel in Switzerland.

What kind of information are you most skeptical of at a fair? (I.e., reports of sales in the press, etc.)

I think all info is useful, including rumors, but we put the greatest credence in looking at the works themselves.

In what ways are art fairs better venues for making acquisitions than auctions? In what ways are they worse?

Art fairs are better in that you have an opportunity to be more contemplative before purchasing. The advantage of an auction is that in a sense it represents the absolute “value” of the piece, since the piece is sold for a price that more than one person is willing to pay for it. An art fair can be worse to the extent that— especially when purchasing work by a young artist—you are relying on the price structure of the gallery, which might not be what the actual prices are. Auctions are worse because we can fall into “auction fever,” an instantaneous emotional response made without thinking more completely.

How are you planning to tackle the array of fairs in Miami this week? In other words, how will you structure your time over the week?

We always start with Art Basel. We never miss NADA and Scope, and then we go to as many other fairs as we can.

What kind of gear do you bring to an art fair? (E.g., a notebook, camera, bottle of water.)

Always wear sneakers; always bring a pad and pen. Treat it like a sporting event and drink a lot of water before coming—lines can be too long to purchase anything to eat and drink. I am not adept with cameras, but Mera is, so we always take pictures, which serve as a memory bank for what we’re interested in.

What is your opinion of art fairs, generally speaking?

Art fairs are a wonderful opportunity to see galleries and artists from parts of the world you might not visit. Oftentimes it’s a learning exercise for us. We might see a gallery where several artists are interesting, and we make it our priority to visit the gallery itself in the months ahead. It’s not often thought about, but art fairs are excellent teaching tools. The first days are obviously a rush, but if you come back towards the end of the fair the gallerists love to educate you about the artists. In years past, we would go to Basel, Switzerland, and we’d see 10 to 15 American collectors; now you see hundreds. There are dozens of art fairs in the world, and we can’t go to all of them, but we go to Art Basel and the New York-based fairs. Then there are others we go to because they’re in places we are interested in. We’ve been to fairs in Korea, Singapore, China, Austria, Italy, England, France, and Germany. These are very important for seeing the best work of artists who have not yet shown at Art Basel.

What is the worst art-fair faux pas?

There are two great sins. One is the tendency of some people to reserve numerous works they’re not really committed to. On occasion, we ourselves might have to change our minds, but we try to minimize this. The second is to walk into a gallery when someone is in the middle of a negotiation and interrupt. People are doing business and aren’t just here for your convenience.

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