When the prodigious Miami collectors Don and Mera Rubell first visited China, in 2001, they found the artists they met fascinating, but they were frankly unimpressed by the art itself. "It was our most intense trip with the least amount of art," Don Rubell says. "Many of the artists seemed to be making work for export."
Seven years later, the pair returned to a new landscape: a vibrant art world filled with men and women making work that was relevant to social issues and mostly free of the clichés that had characterised contemporary Chinese art in the past.
What they saw inspired the Rubells to spend the next five years seeking out artists in Beijing, Shanghai and other mainland cities. And during the recent Art Basel Miami Beach, the Rubells, best known for supporting the works of young American artists, unveiled "28 Chinese", a new exhibition at their museum in Miami that displays for the first time their acquisitions from six trips to China. It runs through to August.
Mera Rubell, 70, equates finding artists such as He Xiangyu, who paints with boiled-down Coca-Cola, and Chen Wei, who photographs surrealistic scenes, to first encountering the now in-demand Californian artists Aaron Curry and Thomas Houseago.
Don Rubell, 73, a retired gynaecologist who now devotes most of his time to his boutique hotel business, says that after visiting He's and Chen's studios and those of dozens of other artists, "we realised we were seeing something different that blew us away".
The exhibition at the 45,000-sq ft Rubell Family Collection and Contemporary Arts Foundation, in the Wynwood Art District of Miami, features the work of 28 Chinese artists, each given a separate gallery.
There are Ton of Tea, by Ai Weiwei, a cube of expensive Pu'er tea that resembles a Chinese Donald Judd, and Diary, by Zhang Huan, a canvas based on a Cultural Revolution-era photo of a man in a Mao suit holding a book.
But, for the most part, the work departs from "made in China" iconography, especially the tapestries of the Shanghai artist Xu Zhen, next year's commissioned artist for the spring Armory Show in New York, or the geometric abstractions of Liu Wei, who had a recent exhibition at his New York gallery, Lehmann Maupin.
"The Rubell collection is not an illustrated history of the avant-garde, on the one hand, nor a speculative portfolio, on the other," says Richard Vine, author New China New Art . "It seems like a personal response, much more than I expected.
"The lesser-known people they've plucked from obscurity will benefit. But I don't think they are operating like collectors, who bought household names, promoted them and then sold them for a profit,"
The Rubells began collecting in the 1960s and their finds have grown into a collection of more than 5,000 works. Studio visits are the heart of the Rubells' mode of discovering new talent; they have visited at least 100 artists in China over the last few years. Among the first was Ai, in 2001, before he was the dissident artist he would become.
"He was a bit insecure about whether he would be accepted in the West, but was totally the ringleader for all the younger artists at that time," Don Rubell recalls.
Rather than buy from the artists, as many collectors did in the 1990s, the Rubells purchased through galleries, particularly Long March Space, Shanghart, Urs Meile and Pearl Lam Gallery, helping China's fledgling gallery scene develop.
They also avoided auctions, where prices can be highly inflated, and fakes abound.
"I would say the single most shocking change in the Chinese art world is that the gallery system is now in effect," says Don Rubell, who argues the new system has helped to legitimise contemporary Chinese art.
The Rubells could be brusque when the art did not appeal to them. "When they didn't like the work, they would make excuses for running out - but when they liked the artist, they would sit down and have long discussions," says Pearl Lam, who advised them.
One of the artists she steered them to was Zhu Jinshi, the oldest of the show's artists but still undiscovered when the Rubells met him; his signature style is to ladle paint on calligraphic compositions. "It was amazing," Mera Rubell recalled. "We walked into his studio, and there was 40 years of history in there. We asked if there was more to see, and they took us into three more studios filled with paintings."
The Rubells, who drive hard bargains with dealers by buying six or eight pieces by an artist at a time, say they rarely spend over six figures for any Chinese work. While their endorsement is expected to raise prices in this roiling market, they say they are not aiming to sell the work and benefit from those increases.
"In 50 years of collecting, we've put together over 5,000 pieces and we've sold less than 20," Don Rubell says. "It's tempting to look at Chinese art as these kids who started out, and now they are living in mansions. But the shocking thing is the way they've become sentinels for Chinese culture."
The New York Times