Art collector Mera Rubell tours 37 Baltimore art studios in 36 hours

She selects 19 local artists to participate in prestigious group shows in Manhattan and Washington

January 06, 2014|By Mary Carole McCauley, The Baltimore Sun

Mera Rubell — a 70-year-old formerly penniless Jewish Russian refugee turned Head Start teacher turned hotel mogul turned art collector extraordinaire — is the kind of person who just naturally acquires an entourage.

For example, a recent tour of Baltimore's art scene began quietly at 8:40 a.m. with just one car and six sleepy occupants. Eight hours later, the caravan that pulled up outside the Charles Village home of paper artist Cara Ober had grown to three vehicles containing at least 14 people, including four reporters and photographers.

The throng kept growing because Mera, who will permit herself to be addressed by no other name, embarks on off-the-wall adventures that also are lots of fun. On a late October weekend, she's visiting the studios of 37 Baltimore artists who were chosen by lottery from a pool of about 150. The whirlwind tour, which takes place in just 36 hours, was inspired by a similar marathon she conducted of Washington studios in 2009.

During her Baltimore visit, Mera was quietly evaluating the artists for inclusion in a group show she was arranging in a prestigious Manhattan gallery — though the painters and sculptors didn't know that yet. They thought they were being considered for "Select 2014," an exhibit sponsored by the Washington Project for the Arts that opens Feb. 27, and for which Mera is one of eight guest curators.

They were indeed being evaluated for the Northern Virginia show. But that wasn't the headline.

"Shhhh," Mera says. "Don't tell them. It's supposed to be a surprise."

(Later, photographer Alessandra Torres would write in an email that upon receiving the phone call informing her that she was among the 19 artists selected for both shows, first she screamed, and then she started laughing. "The entire experience is like an art fairy tale," Torres wrote, "just like the movie version of 'Great Expectations.' ")

Not that the artists needed an incentive. They would gladly open their studios at any hour for the Rubells. Mera, her husband, Don, and their two grown children have put together what they describe as one of the largest private holdings of contemporary art in the world.

The couple began purchasing art in the mid-1960s when Mera was a Head Start teacher and Don was in medical school. They allocated 25 percent of Mera's then-weekly salary of $100 to buy original art — and still spend roughly the same proportion of their income on contemporary paintings and sculptures. They were among the earliest collectors of such future superstars as Jeff Koons, Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince. Now the Rubell Family Collection is housed in a 45,000-square-foot museum in Miami, and the couple divide their time between Florida and New York.

Mera's energy is irresistible. Arms akimbo, she enthuses past all obstacles. The cookies and pastries that artists put out for each 20-minute studio visit are abundant and homemade. They satisfy an appetite the visitors didn't even know they had — just like the art hanging on the studio walls.

Who wouldn't want to tag along?

Jane Deering, the owner of a California gallery bearing her name, is along on the tour … well, just because. "You are magical," she tells Mera. "You know how to put these artists right at ease."

"Oh, stop it," Mera replies.

Deering may be on to something. There's definitely a whiff of a modern-day fairy godmother about Mera — though this godmother sports a black Panama hat and pink-rimmed shades. She loves, loves artists and radiates excitement and pleasure when in their company.

"Wow!" she says after visiting Rachel Rotenberg's Northwest Baltimore studio and marveling at her muscular wood sculptures. "Oh, my God! That was some visit. People have no idea what's going on here in Baltimore."

An hour later, she's in Gary Kachadourian's studio across town, admiring his meticulous black-and-white, life-size drawings of humble objects. Kachadourian's posters, which begin at $6 for a sketch of a chicken bone lying on the sidewalk, bear out one of Mera's favorite sayings: "Everyone can afford to own an original work of art."

Impulsively, she breaks her own rule.

"This trip isn't supposed to be about buying," she says. "But I can't resist."

Mera opens up her wallet — and everyone else in the group scrambles to do the same.

But no one who has acquired the Rubells' reputation for discernment can afford to be uncritical. When Mera judges that the situation warrants tough love, she dispenses it.

For instance, she advises one artist to focus more on refining her vision and less on building an audience. "The journey to become a great artist is long," Mera says, "and it's still ahead of you."

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