Like mother, like daughters: An eye for art is in the genes.
When Rachel Rubin was 12, her mother added one more piece of business to their already-bustling household. Joanie Young, single mother of two daughters, cut hair in the kitchen of their Pikesville townhouse. After working briefly for an art dealer, Young decided she wanted in on the art world as well — on her own terms.
“She drove her station wagon to New York and filled her car with all the art she could fit,” Rubin, now 45, says, while her older sister, Merritt Miller, nods her head nearby.
“In the kitchen you could get your hair cut in the living room you could buy art,” Miller, 47, adds.
The sisters, Rubin in a black sweater and Miller in a crisp white blouse, sit pretty as the current owners of Merritt Gallery and Renaissance Fine Arts. The two own and operate galleries in three locations: Baltimore, Chevy Chase and Philadelphia, with the Baltimore location being their main hub.
The large space is filled with light, its white walls lined from front to back with hand-selected pieces. Their mother, Joanie, has been retired for eight years now, leaving the business in the capable hands of her children while splitting her downtime between Florida and Baltimore.
“She’s kind of back of the house and I’m more front … dealing with sales and clients,” Rubin says of her sister. “Merritt deals with more behind-the-scenes, like marketing and administrative work.” Though they each have their own responsibilities, the two work together procuring art. “We do all of our buying together,” Rubin adds.
Both sisters are married with two daughters each (Miller with two older stepchildren as well). “Our world is so female-dominated,” says Miller. “All of our gallery directors are women, too.”
“It’s how we were raised,” Rubin adds of their feminine power. “We admire and respect each other’s strengths … we know that we’re a good team because of that.”
Miller came aboard her mother’s business in 1994; Rubin followed suit four years later. Though they were literally raised around the art world, it wasn’t as simple as a baton pass from their mother.
“I came in early, I stayed late, I worked six days a week,” Miller remembers. “I worked pretty much every job there was, whether it was packing the art or coming in as my mom’s partner’s assistant.”
Over the years, they learned the ins and outs of the gallery business under their mother. The most crucial lesson, they say, has been that there are no constants. “We’re constantly changing and that’s critical,” Miller says. “There is no book, no manual. It doesn’t exist.”
Above all, both women hold family as a value crucial to both personal life and business. “It is a family business,” Rubin emphasizes. “I think we both respect each other’s need to find that balance.” Miller cuts in, “and for the people that work with us, it’s the same thing. There’s going to be stress, but for the most part we want to make it fun, even on those stressful days.”
Miller and Rubin have an intangible level of communication that is evident within just a few minutes of sitting with them. They back each other up, bounce off of one another’s ideas, and together they strike an undeniable balance.
Before the interview is over, Rubin throws in praise about her older sister’s artistic skills.
“She can really draw,” Rubin says. “You can,” she says to Miller in response to her chuckles.
When Miller was just 13, they explain, she designed and sold hand-painted, bedazzled sweatshirts to join in with her mother’s entrepreneurial endeavors.
“They were art-inspired — some inspired by paintings — and ‘Flashdance’-style with cut-off shoulders,” Rubin remembers. “There were sweatpants that matched, and this was before Juicy.”
The sisters laugh contagiously, an indication that they’re not going to stop having fun at work any time soon.
For information, visit merrittgallery.com
Liz McMahon is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.