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Donald and Mera Rubell spend a quarter of their income on art. Even when they had just married, and were making $100 per week, they spent $25 of it on art.
"And we consider a quarter to be a very controlled number," says Donald Rubell. "Sometimes it's worse than that." Piece by piece, the Rubells have amassed one of the largest, if not the largest, private art collection in the world. They have more than 5,000 pieces of contemporary art, 76 of which are now at D.C.'s Corcoran Gallery of Art in a show called "30 Americans." It's a simple title, for a very challenging show.
Weighing an all-African-American show
All of the artists in "30 Americans" are African American, but there’s a reason the Rubells didn’t point that out in the title.
"The show did not exist because they were African American artists, the show existed because the work was so exciting and so good," he says.
It wasn't until about five years ago they took note of a trend in their own collection, adds his wife. "A disproportionate number of these exciting artists were these young African Americans," she says. "Invariably we would ask them, 'who was your inspiring force?' Artists are always borrowing, they’re always being inspired by an older generation. And to our delight and surprise, many of those artists were already in our collection.
After realizing they were in possession of a huge web of interconnecting artistic influences -- perfect material for an exhibit -- they decided it would never work. "We certainly didn't want it to come across as ghettoizing," Mera says. "How would that be received?"
Turns out, the artists were totally fine with it. To them, an all-African-American show is a celebration.
Jubilant one moment, haunting the next
Still, it's a celebration that deals with some complex topics. On opening night, for example, more than 800 people waited to climb the grand staircase into the Corcoran’s gallery. As they look up the stairs, the only thing they can see is a bright, glimmering noose.
"It's a haunting work, it's a chilling work," says Sara Newman, the show's curator. "When we first put it up, we were like, 'what have we done? ... to have this so central.'" The sculpture, called "Duck, Duck, Noose," is by Gary Simmons.
"It’s really hard to take, but we thought, 'it's a huge part of the conversation, and it is omnipresent,'" Newman says. And, she adds, the show counterbalances the piece with what you see next, Nick Cave's "Sound Suits." The elaborate costumes made from a wide range of fabrics and other materials are part African ceremonial costumes and part Mardi Gras -- definitely evocative of a celebration.
The costumes bring a lightness to a show that at times, forces the viewer to deal with some tough questions. Photographs by Hank Willis Thomas show a black basketball player’s ankles, shackled to a basketball. Another photo shows a man’s head branded with the Nike Swoosh.
Artists honor their predecessors
Most of the artists in the show work and live in New York, although there are a few with roots in the Washington region, including D.C. native Iona Rozeal Brown.
"I am indebted to this town. My mom, we always went to the museum," she says. "I didn't know anything other than the museum." Her work in the show explores how hip hop culture spread around the world, specifically to Japan. In her painting "Sacrifice," she draws an African American woman sleeping on a bed of Japanese textiles, with an intricate hairdo piled on her head.
"And you can't get it messed up, 'cause you've paid all this money," Brown says, explaining the woman's positioning, with her head on her arm. "You kind of have to sleep with your head resting on your hand." To keep her hairstyle, the woman is sacrificing a good night's sleep, which is a parallel Brown saw between the Geisha culture and her own.
"I found that this was similar, and I thought 'well, that's really funny!'" she says.
Baltimore Native Shenique Smith has two sculptures in the show, both of which use everyday objects -- such as jerseys, rugs, and cut up linoleum flooring -- to get at how material goods can connect us to one another. She turned to that subject matter, she says, because as a young artist, the traditional themes of African American art can seem forced.
"I never experienced Jim Crow, I wasn't alive in the Civil rights movement," Smith says. "They're not of my experience. If I was to make work with that as the overt theme, that would feel inauthentic."
Passing on the passion to the next generation
Even so, she’s thrilled to see a show that is full-on contemporary African American art, Smith adds. "I bet many people come, and many school tours come, and just like when I was a kid -- I'm tearing up now," she says, with pause.
"I just realized that when young people come to the museum to see the show, there will be kids like me, going to the MoMA and seeing Lorna Simpson and Carrie Mae Weemes, and thinking 'I could be in this museum,'" she continues, referencing two black, female artists that came before and inspired her. "And now we're together in this one, and I think that's an amazing thing."
Both for her, she says, and for the next generation of emerging artists.
[Music: "A Rumblin' and a Rollin'" and "How Can I Call This Home"by Jason Robert Brown from Parade (2011 Ford's Theatre production)]