Rubell Museum won’t replace director after leadership shakeup

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The Rubell Museum D.C. has parted ways with its inaugural director, Caitlin Berry, a local curator and gallerist who joined the museum ahead of its opening in October 2022.

For the time being, the museum — a satellite of the Miami institution founded by contemporary art collectors Don and Mera Rubell — says that it won’t be appointing another director to replace Berry.

“We’re so grateful for her work launching the museum,” said Juan Valadez, the director of the Rubell Museum in Miami and now, too, its sister institution in the District. “I’m sure we will” eventually hire a director, Valadez added, but they are not searching now.

Both the museum and Berry declined to comment on the nature of her departure, which came on Jan. 28. Berry said in a text message that she was “grateful for the opportunity to be part of the museum opening in D.C., and so proud of what we were able to accomplish in the first year and a half.”

Berry’s exit comes just as the Rubell Museum D.C. was beginning to find its feet locally. In an art scene marked by two extremes — giant cultural treasuries on the National Mall and tiny nonprofits with shoestring budgets — the Rubell Museum stands out as one of a few private midsize organizations bridging that gulf.

Berry oversaw a busy start to the museum’s programming. Since its ribbon-cutting, the Rubell Museum D.C. has invited both locals and luminaries to address the museum’s audience.

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“When I was hired it was with an eye toward public engagement,” Berry said in an interview. “The museum became a place to feel connected.”

Her work included forming a partnership with The Washington Post to host “Style Sessions,” which brought public figures including painter Mickalene Thomas and filmmakers Ava DuVernay and Christopher Nolan to Southwest D.C.

Under Berry’s leadership the Rubell Museum also assembled diverse speakers from closer to home. In June, the museum hosted artists Nekisha Durrett and Hank Willis Thomas for a conversation about “Queen City,” Durrett’s public sculpture in Arlington that honors the residents of the Black community (called Queen City) that was displaced in the 1940s to build the Pentagon. They spoke alongside William Vollin, a former Queen City resident.

That same month, Berry held a public conversation with Larry Robertson, a native Washingtonian who attended school at Randall Junior High, the building that later became the Rubell Museum D.C.

“From someone who was there 50-plus years ago, I couldn’t give them a higher grade,” says Robertson, referring to the renovation of his alma mater. “As a resident of Southwest, watching that space be ignored and neglected for so long, and then to see this beautiful work being done there, I was happy.”

The Rubells are known for collecting rising artists, and the D.C. museum has exhibited work by the likes of February James and Juanita McNeely, as well as longtime D.C. artist Sylvia Snowden. That has led to hopes that the Rubells might be more engaged with emerging artists from the Mid-Atlantic region, from Baltimore to Richmond, according to Blair Murphy, curator of exhibitions for the Museum of Contemporary Art Arlington.

“If they don’t have a director or curator here, cultivating those relationships, being more active as part of the arts community, it seems like that might be something that’s less likely to happen,” Murphy says.

In no way are the Rubells stepping back from D.C., Valadez says, where the museum can mount presentations that wouldn’t quite land the same way in Miami. “We plan on being there for at least 100 years,” he says. “That museum means the world to us.”

The Rubell Museum fills a gap in D.C. that doesn’t exist in New York or Los Angeles, where larger local institutions proliferate alongside major flagship museums, says Kristi Maiselman, executive director for local arts nonprofit Cultural DC.

Maiselman, who used to work for the Rubells, says it’s a difficult time to replace arts administrators, so she isn’t surprised that the Rubell Museum isn’t looking for a new director right now. “There’s a shortage of arts leaders out there, and it’s taking much longer for these searches to happen,” Maiselman says.

But a prolonged or permanent vacancy could shift the trajectory for a D.C. museum that managed to find a way to speak to both local and national audiences at the same time.

“We have an incredible staff up there,” Valadez says. “We’ll just all have to work really hard to make sure that it continues.”

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