On October 29, the Rubell Museum opened its doors to the public in the southwest quadrant of Washington, D.C. It is part of a development more than a decade in the making of an underutilized parcel formerly occupied by the Randall School and rehabilitated by Beyer Blinder Belle (BBB). Situated on the side of the freeway cutting through southwest DC away from the progression of Smithsonian museums that line the National Mall, the Rubell Museum offers a sizable influx of contemporary art that expands the city’s cultural center. The other part of the site’s development is Gallery 64, a 12-story apartment building immediately north of the museum that was designed concurrently by BBB. Museum founders Mera and Don Rubell, along with their son, Jason, had previously opened a Miami museum designed by Selldorf Architects in 2019; the DC location marks the second outpost for an art-collecting family whose collection has grown to nearly 7,500 objects.
Visitors to the Rubell Museum first encounter it as a row of brick school buildings—the 1906 Cardozo Elementary School and the 1927 additions that would transform it into the Randall Junior High School—along I Street SW, with a glass-and-steel entry pavilion facing an open courtyard between the museum and the neighboring Randall Recreation Center and Pool to the east. The taller apartment building, Gallery 64, serves as a backdrop (and highway noise buffer) for the Rubell Museum, with townhouse-style apartments at ground level surrounding an interior courtyard within the 492-unit mid-rise tower’s U-shaped plan; this courtyard bounces daylight into the museum’s north-facing gallery windows and reserves breathing room for the shorter building in perpetuity.
Installation view, left to right: Kehinde Wiley and El Anatsui. Photo © Chi Lam
The compact, minimalist entry pavilion, which has the usual visitor amenities of check-in desk, restrooms, and a table-as-bookstore, quickly gives way through paired glass doors to the former school’s 4,000-square-foot auditorium, which now serves as a sizable, double-height gallery capable of containing oversized works such as Kehinde Wiley’s 11-by-25-foot painting, Sleep, or El Anatsui’s 13-by-17-foot tapestry-like assemblage of bottle caps and wire, Another Man's Cloth. At the opening, Mera Rubell indicated that this auditorium was where Marvin Gaye (then a student at the Randall School) was first recognized as having considerable talents; those talents would later yield his hit song “What’s Going On,” from which the inaugural exhibition at the Rubell Museum draws its name. As she tells it, artist Keith Haring began a series of pieces—Untitled (Against All Odds)—in 1989 while constantly listening to Gaye’s music; those 20 pieces take up one of the galleries, with a boombox on the floor joyfully blasting out “What’s Going On” to further invoke Haring’s experience.
Two panels from Keith Haring's Untitled (Against All Odds) series (1989). Images courtesy the Rubell Museum
Within the oldest building of the complex, BBB has deployed a restrained palette of typical gallery materials strategically, pulling back the white gallery walls and finishes at corners to reveal brickwork that has been retained; uncovered ceilings reveal original joists paired with new “sister” beams bolted alongside to add support where necessary. The main galleries of the museum are on three levels, with the two upper floors boasting their original pine where it was able to be preserved as well as original brick archways serving as portals between galleries. One level is slightly below grade, but with ample daylight admitted downstairs. It features in the inaugural exhibition an installation of broken columns and other architectural details coated in imitation gold leaf—John Miller’s A Refusal to Accept Limits. The galleries seem to delight in the juxtaposition of contemporary art within historic architecture as much as BBB did with their textural and stylistic contrasts between the historic schoolhouse and the new residential building.
BBB principal Hany Hassan says he’s excited for the newly opened museum and the forthcoming residences (set to open in spring 2023) to revitalize the area: “It's an overall development to really transform this area,” he said at the opening. “The absence of this building, when it was vacant—for a very long time, almost a decade or more—created a void in the heart of the southwest area between South Capitol Avenue and the water. This development will have a very positive impact on the neighborhood simply because of the scale of it.” With free admission for District residents, the Rubell Museum is certainly trying to set first impressions as a good neighbor.