The rooms at the new Rubell Museum DC are filled with colorful paintings, photographs, sculptures and installations instead of students and desks. But with the building’s exposed brick and tall arched windows, it’s easy to imagine how it might have looked in its former life as Randall Junior High. The late singer and activist Marvin Gaye was a student at the school in Southwest Washington that closed in 1978. He graduated in 1954 and went on to write the groundbreaking 1971 album What’s Going On. That album and the hit song that shares its name are the inspiration for the inaugural exhibition at the museum, which opened in October.
They also inspired the exhibition’s central work, artist Keith Haring’s Untitled (Against All Odds), a 20-piece series created while Haring listened to Gaye’s album on repeat. The series was dedicated to Steve Rubell, co-founder of famous New York City nightclub Studio 54 and brother of Don Rubell, who, with his wife, Mera, and son, Jason, opened the museum to present exhibitions of their extensive art collection. Haring and Steve Rubell both died of AIDS-related complications more than 30 years ago.
In addition to Haring’s series, the exhibition includes art by 50 artists whose work—like Gaye’s—responds to social and political issues. Many pieces are by artists of color and challenge ideas about race, gender, identity and sexuality. Kehinde Wiley’s Sleep, a massive 11-by-25-foot painting depicting a Black man stretched out in repose against a backdrop of green foliage, is one of them. Wiley is also known for painting Barack Obama’s portrait for the National Portrait Gallery. There is also a gallery dedicated to paintings by D.C. artist Sylvia Snowden. The entire What’s Going On exhibition will be on view into 2023.
Rubell Museum DC, 65 I St. SW, Washington, D.C. Museum hours are 11:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Wednesday-Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday-Sunday. $10-$15, free for Washington, D.C., residents. 202-964-8254, dc.rubellmuseum.org
This story appears in the January/February 2023 issue of Bethesda Magazine.