When the Senate Finance Committee, headed by Sen. Orrin Hatch, sent letters to 11 private museums and galleries around the U.S. in November to inquire whether they served enough of a public purpose to merit tax exemptions, Miami’s Rubell Family Collection was on the list.
But co-founder Mera Rubell, who opened the 45,000-square-foot Wynwood space with husband Don in 1993, says she wasn’t taken aback by the note.
“We were very happy that the Senator was aware of our mission and what we do,” she says. “I didn’t see it as any kind of accusation or attack. They were conducting a broad spectrum of research. They took a sampling of non-profits across the country and wanted to learn more about how they perform their mission.
In the November letter, Hatch questioned whether the private foundations operating the 11 museums were offering “minimal benefit to the public while enabling donors to reap substantial tax advantages.” The institutions ranged from the Rubell, often noted by arts publications as one of the world’s top private collections, to the Brant Foundation Art Study Center in Greenwich, CT., a smaller gallery located inside a former fruit barn that is open to the public by appointment only,
Hatch’s letter was prompted by a report in The New York Times that examined the increasing number of private museums around the country founded by art collectors who benefit from the tax exemptions the institutions provide.
Hatch’s office did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday. In November, Hatch told the New York Times, “Tax-exempt museums should focus on providing a public good and not the art of skirting around the tax code. While more information is needed to ensure compliance with the tax code, one thing is clear: under the law, these organizations have a duty to promote the public interest, not those of well-off benefactors, plain and simple.”
South Florida, home to some half-dozen private art museums, is so closely associated with museums funded and opened by private collectors that the practice that it has been dubbed The Miami Model. Most of the private Miami museums are registered as not-for-profit entitites and receive tax-exempt status.
Rubell, who says she replied to Hatch’s inquiry prior to the Dec. 15 deadline, estimates the collection received about 40,000 visitors in 2015, including some 20,000 during the first week of December, when the annual Art Basel Miami Beach and other art events swept the city. “We don’t keep an exact count, because we don’t have to justify our numbers,” she said. The collection is open Wednesday-Saturdays from Dec. through May and Wednesdays and Fridays the rest of the year.
In addition to the annual exhibition of works from its own holdings, the Rubell Family Collection works closely with the Miami Dade public school system and offers hands-on internships to college students throughout the year (including the University of Florida, Brown University and Rhode Island School of Design), allowing art scholars the opportunity to work in the RFC’s 40,000-volume library. In addition, works from the Rubell Collection are regularly loaned to other institutions for exhibition. In 2015, the Rubells lent a pair of artworks by Jeff Koons to the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain and a Luc Tuymans painting to the Qatar Museum Authority in Doha.
In January, the RFC hosted the Miami-Dade County Public Schools’ regional ceremony of the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards and exhibited artwork and portfolios by middle and high school students. In September, Mera Rubell was awarded the 2015 Sara T. Maddox Support of Art Education Award by the Dade Art Educators Association for her work with public schools.
The RFC’s 30 Americans exhibition, which showcases 300 works by African-American artists from the last three decades, has been touring the U.S. since 2012 (the show is currently on display at the Detroit Institute of Art). Another former RFC exhibition, 28 Chinese, comprised of artwork culled during six research trips to China between 2001 and 2012, is on exhibit at the San Antonio Museum of Art through January.
Admission to the Rubell Family Collection costs $10 for adults and $5 for seniors and students. U.S. military and those under 18 are admitted free. The admission fee is substantively less than the $16 adult entry at the public Perez Art Museum Miami.
Other local private museums — including Wynwood’s Margulies Collection at the Warehouse, downtown’S Cisneros Fontals Art Foundation, the open-air Wynwood Walls and the de la Cruz Collection — also mount annual exhibitions open to the public and are engaged in public programs including student programs, residencies, commissions and loans.
The not-for-profit Margulies Warehouse, which showcases holdings of the Martin Z. Margulies Collection, expects to welcome about 6,000 visitors during its annual six-month opening. It regularly arranges free student tours and holds lectures by guest speakers who have included artist Frank Stella. Works from its collection, based in Wynwood, are on display at the Brooklyn Museum and Whitney Museum of American Art. The entry fee of $10 is donated to Miami’s Lotus House for homeless women and children.
CIFO, the Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation whose downtown Miami museum was established by collector Ella Cisneros, is best known for its commission and residency programs. The museum expects to host about 5,000 visitors during its annual six-month opening period ending in May.
Wynwood Walls, the open-air museum of street murals founded by the late Tony Goldman, does not charge an entry fee. About 580,000 visited in 2014, said a spokesman, and about 667,000 are expected to visit in 2015.
Of Miami’s private museums, only the De La Cruz Collection does not seek tax-exempt status. At its Design District museum, the De La Cruz hosts a wide range of regular public programs drawing about 20,000 visitors annually. Founders Rosa and Carlos de la Cruz recently were honored by the Knight Foundation for their support of student programs that include travel to museums abroad,
Rubell, who founded the RFC with her husband Donald in 1964, says her work “provides a way for us to engage the public with our passion for collecting. It gives us focus and purpose. I like knowing that Sen. Hatch knows we exist. I think it’s fabulous. We get to tell him about everything we do!”