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Collecting as a Family Affair

By Thane Peterson Miami hotelier Donald Rubell often refers to art collecting as a "disease." After four decades of acquiring art, he and his wife Mera now own upward of 5,000 works. They have their own 40,000-square-foot museum, which they're now renovating to make more space for showing artwork. But when the refurbished space reopens late this year, it still will be able to hold barely 5% of their collection. At any given time, 100 to 200 works are on loan to museums around the world, and the rest are kept in storage.

Donald, now 63, started out as a gynecologist in New York City. But the couple wanted a career they could pursue with their children, Jason and Jennifer. A knack for spotting trends runs in the family (Donald's late brother, Steve, who died in 1989, was co-founder of Studio 54, the New York nightclub), and the Rubells gradually got into real estate, eventually focusing on Miami, where they now live. They own three Art Deco Miami hotels as well as a fourth hotel, in Washington, D.C., which they jointly manage with their children, now in their thirties.

Few, if any, families are more passionate about collecting art than the Rubells. Donald claims with only a touch of hyperbole that the family invests "every dollar we earn" in new artworks, the museum, and the museum's 27,000-volume library of art books. Like the family business, the collection is managed jointly -- all four family members must sign off on any new purchases of art. Donald and Mera are now building a new home next to the museum so they can be as close as possible to the art.

I recently checked in with Donald Rubell to talk about the Rubell Family Collection. Here are edited excerpts of our talk:

Q: The current red-hot contemporary art market must be hard on active collectors like you. Prices are rising so fast.

A: It's still overheated. Then again, I thought that about New York real estate. If it stays overheated long enough and keeps going up, who am I to judge?

But with artists we've been following for years, like [the 54-year-old American photographer and painter] Richard Prince, the prices just keep jumping. We've been accumulating Richard Prince's work almost nonstop since 1979 and probably paid $100 for the first works we bought. But, all of a sudden, he has gotten very expensive. One of his works went for more than $700,000 at the spring art auctions [in New York].

Q: What was your overall take on the spring auctions?

A: I thought the prices were very, very high. But maybe they're just too high for me. People were fighting each other to pay these prices. It was similar at another auction in California. There's a young Belgian artist, Micha? Borremans, we're very interested in. He's one of the most exciting young artists I've seen in Europe. I thought we'd get his work because no one else would have heard of him. But it went for $130,000 -- for a young artist! I was trying to bid by phone, but I couldn't get a bid in because there were so many bidders.

Collectors are very alert these days. And it isn't just older families anymore. These [new collectors] are young, bright kids with MBAs who are used to reading and looking and using the Internet to get information. So, the time lag of information has shortened immeasurably.

Q: How do you work it out between you and your wife and children when you want to buy a work of art? What if you don't agree?

A: We've been doing this many years together. Jason and Jennifer have been involved literally since they were five. When there's a difference of opinion, you have to fight for your ideas. There's no seniority. You have to convince everyone else or lose.

Q: How much time do you spend going around to galleries looking at art?

A: Well, for example, we showed up in New York last Friday [June 4], and we spent 10 hours in the galleries on Friday and 10 hours on Saturday. We're not good social animals.

Q; Gallery owners must fawn over you.

A: Not really. I try to go in and out of galleries fast. We only slow down if we see something really interesting.

Q: Does your wife come with you?

A: Always. Our son comes about half the time -- more often when we're traveling in Europe. Now, we're training our two grandkids, too. The 3-year-old, Samuel, can already recognize a Jeff Koons or a Maurizio Cattelan. Ella, who is a year-and-a-half, isn't independent yet. She tends to follow and look at what he looks at. You have to train them. It amazes me what kids can absorb.

Q: How do you manage all this? Do you have your own curators?

A: We have a director of the collection and a registrar, and we have interns who are very active. And we're very active. It sounds worse than it is.

Q: Isn't it pretty costly to insure such a big collection? I'm just thinking of the recent warehouse fire in London that destroyed part of Charles Saatchi's art collection.

A: Don't even talk about that. The new [storage] warehouse we're building [to free up space in the] museum is a real fortress, all concrete -- every precaution is taken. We're very cognizant of trying to protect the art as much as possible. When the artists come to visit, they're not even allowed to touch their own works unless they wear white gloves.

Q: Other than Richard Prince, are there well-known artists whose work you bought early on, before the artist became famous?

A: We bought some of the first pieces that Cindy Sherman ever sold. With Keith Haring, we bought both the first and last piece he ever sold before he died [in 1990 at age 31]. At the beginning we were only involved with young artists. Now, as time goes on, we try to sort them out and really commit ourselves to the ones we think are the most important of their generation.

Q: What is your advice for small collectors who don't have your budget and experience?

A: Look -- look and read. With art, the more you look, the better your eye becomes. The more you read critics who look all the time, the more you understand. It doesn't work if you walk into a gallery once a month and say, "If I like it I'll buy it." Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BusinessWeek Online

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