The New Glenstone is a Contemporary Art Retreat in the Wilds of Montgomery County

When Glenstone’s new expansion opens in October, it will instantly light up the global map of contemporary art destinations. Marked by extraordinary works by Michael Heizer, Robert Gober, Lygia Pape, On Kawara, and other mainstays in postwar art, the new Pavilions building is a temple to contemporary expression. Glenstone boasts one of the most significant collections in the region, and its new museum building, designed by architect Thomas Phifer and built for $219 million, provides a sublime viewing experience. Arranged around a central aquatic courtyard, each pavilion offers an exquisite experience with art, assembling elements of light, shadow, space, and most importantly, retreat.

Glenstone may also be the most reluctant museum in America. The Potomac, Maryland, institution is the work of billionaire collectors Mitchell and Emily Wei Rales, who first launched the family collection and private foundation on the grounds of a former fox-hunting estate some 15 years ago. For much of that time, it was inaccessible to viewers—and not merely by dint of its privileged location in Potomac, one of the area’s most affluent suburbs. Allowing only a trickle of visitors since its 2006 opening, the museum has looked more like an adjunct of the collectors’ home, which also shares the Glenstone campus. 

With its new jewelbox building—and with some prompting, perhaps, from a Senate Finance Committee inquiry—Glenstone appears ready to meet the audience that the museum’s monumental tilt has always demanded.

“We are not at the end, and we are not at the beginning,” says Mitch Rales. “We need another 15 years to get the model right.”

Phifer’s building comprises 26,000 blocks of cast concrete, meticulously stacked and arranged down to the millimeter. The architects poured the cement in different seasons to allow for natural variation in the moisture within the concrete, allowing for softer or darker gray bricks. The museum appears to be physically retreating into a meadow, in large part due to the natural reclamation work by PWP Landscape Architecture (and also because the Raleses keep buying up adjacent properties). 

Fastidious attention to detail extends to the museum program itself. Glenstone skips explanatory wall text, for example, employing flesh-and-blood explainers who stand ready to give an oral thesis on even the most inaccessible works (and also mind the galleries). These fellows dress in identical gray smocks designed by Aï Bihr, a former design director at Uniqlo. The look is drone chic. But the jobs are bonafide, paying, entry-level positions, held by a diverse and friendly staff.

When viewers arrive, they walk a short distance along a meadow path to a cedar-lined arrival hall. From there they can follow trails to find a flower-mound sculpture by Jeff Koons, earthwork huts by Andy Goldsworthy, a sound installation by Cardiff & Miller—or simply marvel at the deciduous woodland. Along the path are new plantings of wildflowers and native grasses, lined up in military-precise symmetrical rows, that reveal the founders’ impossibly meticulous vision for Glenstone. 

Stem by stem, the Raleses are planning every detail of the museum’s sylvan backdrop—a forested meadow to make art sing. 

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In December 2015, the Senate Finance Committee issued a letter to nearly a dozen museums and art foundations across the country. Among the recipients were the Brant Foundation, Rubell Family Collection, Linda Pace Foundation, and The Broad—most of them fairly new art palaces built by collectors to show off their collections. Several had built splashy expansions within recent years. Signed by Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch, the letter sought detailed information on operations, from museum hours to total visitors to property tax and title figures. Glenstone got caught in the dragnet.

“[R]ecent reports have raised the possibility that some private foundations are operating museums that offer minimal benefit to the public while enabling donors to reap substantial tax advantages,” the letter reads. “Such an arrangement would be inconsistent with the letter and intent of the 501(c)(3) tax exemption.”

Hatch appeared to be signing on with an emerging criticism that some private or family art collections were built with an elite audience in mind, or no audience at all. At issue was a question of private inurement: whether these institutions were receiving tax benefits designed to promote philanthropic activity without doing the basics, like making art available to the public. Basically, the Senate was sniffing around to determine whether these private art collections were just tax shelters. 

Two of Hatch’s targets are based here: the Kreeger Museum, a family art collection located in the former Philip Johnson–designed residence of David and Carmen Kreeger, and Glenstone.

The Kreeger already had a long museum record under its belt. Just two years prior to the inquiry, the Kreeger had celebrated its 20th anniversary as a museum by hosting a show, organized by curator Sarah Tanguy, to highlight the museum’s holdings of D.C. area artists, from Sam Gilliam to Kendall Buster to Renee Stout. Crucially, the Kreeger could point to robust educational programs, such as a long-running docent unit geared toward people with Alzheimer’s disease. Visits cost a suggested donation of $10, with no reservation required and decent weekly hours; the Kreegers themselves had long since passed, although their children still served as trustees. 

Glenstone, in contrast, had just opened its first-ever exhibition of work by a single artist (Fred Sandback) in 2015. The museum was only beginning to assemble and advertise special exhibitions. (Today, Mitch Rales refers to the original, Charles Gwathmey–designed Glenstone building as a “starter museum.”) 

But for years, it only opened its doors a crack to the public. When City Paper’s Angela Valdez tried to visit the museum in 2008, she was turned away as a member of the media. I wasn’t able to see Glenstone, either, back then or a few years later, in 2011. At least one art reporter I know was asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement to see the collection, and rumors of that were common. Friendliness to the media is hardly a measure of a museum’s fitness, but Glenstone also forbade photography for the few visitors who walked through its doors (and still does inside).

Traffic numbers tell a similar story. The Kreeger, tucked away in D.C.’s tony (and transit-remote) Foxhall neighborhood, enjoyed a modest 15,000 visitors a year in 2013 and 2014. For the same two-year period, Glenstone had 17,000 visitors total. Granted, it’s further out from the population center. But by any other measure, Glenstone was already a behemoth: a foundation with some $800 million in assets at the time. A museum with a Koons parked right out front. 

“Tax-exempt museums should focus on providing a public good and not the art of skirting around the tax code,” Hatch said in 2015. “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.”

Asked if the Senate probe pushed the museum to change its ways, Mitch Rales says, “Not in the least.” He adds, “Glenstone has been a canvas that has been and will continue to be painted. It has been in the works for 15 years now. I think we need another 15 years to really finish and complete the subject matter.”

The museum is now open to the public, with scheduled (free) reservations four days a week. “That will eventually be five or six, once we get our sea legs,” says Rales, who made his fortune primarily through corporate acquisitions. Glenstone is preparing to receive more than 400 visitors a day, which will boost its attendance by an order of magnitude. Fifteen years in, its assets totaling well over $1 billion (per public records), Glenstone is starting to look like a museum—an extremely well-funded and very cautious one.

“We learned a valuable lesson from going to Crystal Bridges,” Mitch Rales says, referring to the American art museum in Bentonville, Arkansas. “They expected about 70,000 visitors the first year. They got 700,000. They had people waiting in lines waiting outside the cafe to get a cup of coffee for an hour. We want to try to avoid some of those types of scenarios. I think you’ll see us continue to broaden our horizons, open up more and more, and find that sweet spot without diluting that experience of slow-art engagement.”

The museum can boast of another achievement: It’s now kind of accessible by public transit. The museum lobbied Montgomery County for a limited-service stop on a new Ride On bus route between Potomac and the Rockville Metro Station. Now there are between seven and nine stops daily on the 301 line at Gallery Road, a short hike from the wonders of Glenstone.

“We pushed and pushed and pushed and pushed for it,” says Emily Rales. “It’s just not easy to get here.”

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When the National Gallery of Art’s East Building reopened after a three-year renovation in 2016, one of its most visible features was the big blue chicken on its roof. Katharina Fritsch’s ultramarine “Hahn/Cock” is one of D.C.’s favorite new sculptures and photo-ops. It belongs to the Raleses.

“I suspect we’ll never get it back,” Mitch Rales says of the rooster, which is on long-term loan. “It’s become a little bit of an icon.”

Rales is a trustee and former chair of the National Gallery, and the Raleses are generous donors to this museum and many others, including the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Although he demurs on the point, he may be one of few Washingtonians in history in a position to build at the scale of an Andrew Mellon, the National Gallery’s founder. Tax records for both institutions show that Glenstone holds more in assets than the National Gallery ($1.4 billion to $1.2 billion). 

Building a third wing of the National Gallery would be a tall order—harder, even, than carving a sprawling meadow sculpture garden out of McMansion country. But the sheer scope of the new Pavilions museum raises the question: Wouldn’t a Glenstone be better off on the National Mall?

“We wanted to create a different type of experience than another wing of the National Gallery that would have millions of visitors coming—not that there’s anything wrong with that,” Rales says. “We wanted to create an environment where people could truly engage, slow down, and look at the art.”

Other barons have built new museums on controversy. To assemble her encyclopedic American art museum, Crystal Bridges, Walmart heiress Alice Walton looked to cash-strapped libraries and universities, including historically black and women’s colleges, for vital art holdings. Walton made offers these non-art institutions couldn’t refuse. The practice fueled local critiques that she was building a museum at the expense of historic American art collections. When she tried to buy a beloved 1875 painting by Thomas Eakins from Thomas Jefferson University, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts fought her off by raising funds—even taking out a loan—to keep the painting in its historical home town. Crystal Bridges, which also has more than $1 billion in assets, came at it the big-box way: The museum quickly racked up more than a million visitors, but it did so by cannibalizing smaller institutions and moving local gems to the historical home of Walmart, four hours away from even Little Rock. (For his part, Mellon launched the National Gallery’s collection with a 1931 purchase of 21 European masterpieces; the sale helped Josef Stalin pay for the first Five-Year Plan.)

The Raleses’ museum doesn’t raise the same ethical hackles. Instead, it opens a whole different box of thorny questions about art—debates that Emily Rales is prepared to tackle. She runs operations at Glenstone; her acute eye has shaped its collection. She describes their collecting philosophy with a reference to Arden Reed’s book, Slow Art. At Glenstone, visitors should leave their problems at the door, the Raleses say, and enter a space in nature suitable for reflection and contemplation. It’s a notion of the sublime, recrafted for an experience tailored to the scale and scope of postwar and 21st century art.

But it is a narrow and carefully crafted sublime. Even the aquatic gardens must grow just so. As landscape architect Adam Greenspan explains, the courtyard features underwater planters built into ribbed dividers, essentially potted cells that allow the museum to change the depth of the substrate anywhere in the pond. This way, tall-growing irises never interfere with courtyard views, where the museum prefers lily pads to grow. Glenstone reasserts the primacy of the museum, and really, of the collector, at a time when artists are turning institutions upside down.

Glenstone’s collection centers around sculpture, painting, and installation, with little in the way of photography or video, and nothing in terms of performance or art produced digitally. While their collection includes artists of color, there’s little to suggest the modes of identity, postcolonialism, intersectionality, or social justice driving artists today. That’s also a result of the Raleses’ philosophy. As collectors, they wait and watch: They don’t buy work by artists before they’ve been exhibiting at the museum level for 15 years. Emily Rales says that this means they focus on artists in their 40s or 50s at their youngest and collect artists well into their 80s or beyond.

“Because of our 15-year rule, that eliminates a number of those [new] media—for the time being,” she says. The Raleses pass on the youngblood painters that feverish investors stalk at art fairs. “To date, we don’t own any performance art. We have a sound piece, by [Cardiff & Miller], that is a different kind of work that I would say 10 years ago we never would have dreamed of owning, and now we do. We’re certainly pushing into those arenas that are less tangible and more amorphous.”

The audacity of Glenstone is its site. At 230 acres and growing, the grounds command a vast chunk of suburbs that the Raleses are converting from subdevelopment to forested meadow, by planting native (albeit extremely curated) trees and wildflowers. One of the museum’s new pavilions is a reading room, complete with a bench designed by Martin Puryear, and a glass-paneled view of the emerging landscape. This terraforming serves a singular vision for how contemporary art should be seen.

Over the next 15 years, that vision will change. A conservation lab is “something we overlooked,” Emily Rales says. (Glenstone employs a full-time art conservator, plus conservation fellows.) If and when the museum builds again, it will likely mean more administrative space. But as artists engaged in performance, social practice, and other new media come onto the collectors’ radar, Glenstone may need to build new facilities—even new typologies—to suit this work. Even conservation is a field in flux.

The vision driving Glenstone’s expansion is principled, noble, maybe even transcendental. It’s also ultimately conservative. New modes of art, from hip-hop to street art to social intervention, don’t have a home in a forest—although maybe they just haven’t found a place there yet. It’s true that a stunning mise-en-scène by Robert Gober, a moody room-sized installation, would be hard for the Hirshhorn or the East Building to acquire. But the city is its own vital context for art. A few of the works at Glenstone look self-conscious about being so far removed.

It’s easier to say what Glenstone isn’t than what it is. Glenstone is not a public space. Glenstone is not a black box. Glenstone is not a 21st century archive. Glenstone is not promoting equity, addressing inequality, or solving accessibility—not yet anyhow. For much of its first dozen years, Glenstone was not a museum at all. But Glenstone is evolving.  

“For us, that’s what it’s about here: giving space to these artists to be remembered in perpetuity, in a way that just can’t be done in certain places today,” Mitch Rales says. “We can commit space, as a private institution, that’s extremely difficult for a public institution to do.”

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