Democracy Dies in Darkness

Museums | Perspective

This new museum doesn’t want Instagram or crowds. Does that make it elitist?

August 30, 2018 at 3:58 PM

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This time-lapse video shows the development of the Pavilions, a 204,000 square foot art gallery in Potomac, Md. that is scheduled to open on Oct. 4. (Courtesy of Glenstone Museum)

There are contemporary museums harder to get to and more isolated than Glenstone, including one on a lonely island in Japan and another in a remote town in Texas. Some museums are invitation-only and function almost like private clubs. And there are several prominent institutions that focus on integrating culture with nature, inviting visitors not just to look at art, but luxuriate in landscape. But when Glenstone opens its new facility to the public next month in Potomac, Md., the art museum will do so at a moment when something new is stirring in the art world: a powerful sense that too many museums have become a victim of their own success, and a new paradigm for experiencing art is desperately needed.

Glenstone is the creation of Mitch and Emily Rales, wealthy art collectors who opened a gallery on the grounds of their Maryland estate in 2006. On Oct. 4, the couple will inaugurate a greatly expanded arts campus, with more than five times the exhibition space in a building called the Pavilions, a gathering of interconnected galleries built around a pool, set into a gentle hill. Made from gray, cast concrete and full of natural light, the Pavilions feels minimalist, monastic and somehow ancient at the same time.

“Split-Rocker” at Glenstone depicts two halves of toy rockers, a dinosaur on one side and pony on the other. (Jennifer Heffner/For The Washington Post)

The new Glenstone will open its doors a bit wider than the old one, allowing more people to visit through its online reservation system. And those who do will see, finally, the full realization of the Raleses’ ambition to create one of the largest, richest and most ambitious new cultural organizations in the world. But the 230-acre Glenstone compound, with a cafe, an entry pavilion, rotating exhibits, and access to outdoor art installations and trails throughout the site, has been designed around visitor experience rather than maximizing the number of visitors who cross its threshold.

It is self-consciously a museum built in the spirit of the nascent “slow art” movement, which is a reaction to larger forces afoot in the art market, democratic culture and the age of Instagrammable art. Emily Rales anticipates that Glenstone will accommodate about 400 people a day without compromising the contemplative sense of escape from the world that is fundamental to the founders’ vision. By contrast, the Phillips Collection, which operates on a small, landlocked site in the center of Washington, sees a bit more than 500 visitors a day, on average, while the Hirshhorn, which is centrally located, receives about 2,500 visitors a day.

The 'Mona Lisa' moment

“We’ve all had the ‘Mona Lisa’ moment,” says Thomas Phifer, the architect who worked closely with the Raleses to design the 204,000-square-foot Pavilions. The “Mona Lisa” moment is a sense of despair at the impossibly crowded galleries of the Louvre in Paris, where the room devoted to the Mona Lisa is a scene of pure chaos as tour groups jostle and throng and sometimes shove one another in hopes of getting close enough to snap a cellphone picture of the world’s most famous painting. “You walk into that room and you’re with 400 of your closest friends and maybe you can get a glimpse of the Mona Lisa,” Phifer says of a pervasive and frustrating experience that is becoming more common at museums around the world.

Related: [The Broad Collection opens, with a generic display of trophy art]

The Mona Lisa moment can be had in the galleries of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which has become so crowded that serious art lovers now avoid it, or in special exhibitions such as last year’s Kusama show at the Hirshhorn, which was so popular that visitors were monitored by stopwatch and allowed only a few seconds each in the Japanese artist’s specially built “infinity” rooms. The problem isn’t just crowds, or noise or distraction; it is the annihilation of one of the essential components for viewing art, which is extended individual contemplation.

Some of the last visitors to Hirshhorn Museum’s “Obliteration Room” by Yayoi Kusama apply stickers to the wall of the installation last May. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Yet reengineering the contemporary museum to preserve a meaningful experience is complicated, forcing museum designers, and patrons such as the Raleses, to confront deeply embedded cultural assumptions about access, elitism and the public value of the art experience. In the late 19th- and throughout much of the 20th century, museums stood as temples of art, delivering lessons about the “civilizing” value of culture. In the middle of the last century, new generations of museum leadership began to stress more populist ideas of openness and equality in the gallery experience. That second age of American museums — the Age of Access — has bred the seeds of its own destruction, generating a cultural experience that attracts enormous crowds, but without giving them any substantial engagement with the materiality or cultural complexity of the art itself.

The Age of Access offered cafes, Internet connectivity, social communion and the delight of feeling part of a larger social milieu, and it measured its success in numbers of visitors. In his 2017 book, “Slow Art,” the critic Arden Reed proposed looking at an alternative history of art that ran counter to ideas of speed, commerce and consumption. Slow art, he argued, is a practice, a relationship, a historical way of looking, that emerged in opposition to many of the values that undergird the modern art museum: “As culture sped up and sacred aesthetic practices waned, slow art came to satisfy our need for downtime by producing works that require sustained attention in order to experience them.”

Tony Smith’s "Smug," 1973/2005, is one of the outdoor sculptures installed at Glenstone Museum. (Iwan Baan/Glenstone Museum)

A contemplative experience

“Our whole premise is based on the idea that one needs to have quiet and an optimal experience of art,” Emily Rales says. So while thinking about the new Pavilions building, she and her husband visited and studied other museums, including ones that handle an enormous volume of foot traffic. At the Guggenheim in New York, she says, each visitor has an average of about 32 square feet of space to move around in, which felt too crowded. So they have designed Glenstone to offer about 300 square feet of space to the viewer. In the galleries, there will be no barriers between people and the art, but that means controlling visitor flow so that large crowds don’t inadvertently bump into and damage the works. “We strongly believe that we should not have any stanchions, or barriers, but that limits the number of people in the room,” she says.

Adam Greenspan, with PWP Landscape Architecture, gives another example of how designers attempted to slow down the experience: A bridge that connects the entry pavilion with the main museum structure was kept narrower than usual, to encourage people to move through the space in groups of two or three, rather than throngs of 20 or 30. The goal, he said, is a landscape in which people can “meander.”

David Hammons’s 1988 installation, "How Ya Like Me Now?," is on view at the Glenstone Museum. (David Hammons/Tim Nighswander/Imaging4Art.com/Glenstone Museum)

The upper limit of 400 people might evolve, as museum leaders get a better sense of the space and its capacity. “Our best-laid plans will start to unfold as the doors open,” Mitch Rales says. “The bottom line is that we will max out the amount of people who can come on a given day so long as we don’t dilute the experience.”

Related: [How to view art: Slow down and skip the gift shop]

Controlling the visitor environment isn’t new in the history of American museums, but this goal has a fraught history. The reclusive Barnes Foundation outside Philadelphia was hounded for decades for not allowing greater public access to its founder’s astonishing collection of impressionist and post-impressionist art. Albert Barnes had stipulated that his art was to be used as an educational asset, not to be moved from a purpose-built gallery in the Philadelphia suburbs, and it was to be accessible to the public on a limited basis, a few days of the week. Critics of the Barnes Foundation, including Philadelphia Inquirer owner Walter Annenberg, successfully branded the foundation as elitist, and after years of financial struggle, the museum was moved to the center of Philadelphia in 2012 and opened to the public on a greatly expanded basis.

There was a smaller, but similar drama during opening of the Pulitzer Foundation in St. Louis in 2001, which was also originally intended to be accessible to the public two days a week, with a 50-visitor per half-hour limit. The goal was to preserve an environment for study, accessible mainly to arts professionals, but the museum’s opening was greeted with headlines such as “New Museum (sort of) for St. Louis; The Pulitzer Art Collection will welcome visitors up to a point” in the New York Times. After stinging criticism in the local press, and accusations of elitism, the Pulitzer is now open regular hours four days a week and has a robust roster of community engagement projects.

Museums face a unique set of challenges in an age that makes aesthetic value judgments based primarily on ideas of circulation and mass appreciation, driven by social media and the instantaneous and ubiquitous exchange of images. Concert halls, for example, can be built to a limited size to maximize acoustical values and interaction with the performers. Even a musical such as “Hamilton” can charge ridiculously high ticket prices to a limited audience without being considered elitist, simply because there is no other way to present the drama except to a limited live audience on a nightly basis. Museums, however, have spoken the language of mass access for so long that almost anything they do to control the experience — prohibit cameras or selfie sticks, for example — is likely to be seen as elitist. Glenstone will discourage taking pictures in the galleries and will instead invite visitors to engage with guides in the galleries, or look up information when they get home, or buy a book from the bookstore.

Eva Hesse. "Several," 1965, on view at Glenstone Museum. (The Estate of Eva Hesse/Tim Nighswander/Imaging4Art.com/Glenstone Museum)

“We don’t have a digital strategy,” Mitch Rales says. Emily adds, “We always go against the grain.”

The danger of going against the grain isn’t just a matter of public perception or diminished visitorship. Ideas about access are embedded in the legal thinking about museums, too. Because there are large tax advantages to donating art to a private foundation, there is a public and political interest in the value offered back to the public. Glenstone was caught up in a 2015 investigation by the Senate Finance Committee, in which 11 private museums were asked about admission fees, opening hours, lending policies and visitor numbers. The purpose, according to the committee’s chairman, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), was to determine whether any of them “provide limited benefits to the public while enabling donors to reap substantial tax advantages.”

Glenstone emerged from that process relatively unscathed — it doesn’t charge admission, it lends its work to other institutions, and it was in the process of expanding at the time. But the reflexive interest of the Senate committee in the volume of visitors indicates how difficult it is for public institutions to focus on quality of experience over quantity of attendance.

Thinking beyond numbers

The problem is felt throughout the art world, with some museums embracing the Instagram age and its focus on the rapid circulation of people and images. Many museums are governed by business executives who lack the imagination to think beyond numbers, and can’t find value in anything that isn’t quantifiable, whether it’s people coming to see an exhibition, social media likes, or revenue from cafes and gift shops. This mind-set is baked into boards and executive leadership, and it’s rare to find a museum annual report that doesn’t trumpet the numbers on its cover or prominently in the text.

Underlying all of this is an anxiety too discomfiting to be openly expressed: Are contemporary art museums, in fact, providing something of value to the public? The answer isn’t self-evident to groups such as the Senate Finance Committee, nor is it universally apparent to the wider American audience. But it is surprising how ill-equipped most art museums are to give a meaningful response to the question, beyond citing their visitor numbers and the breadth of their public programs. Arden Reed’s book on Slow Art is, among other things, an attempt to explain the contemplative experience of contemporary art in a more nuanced and robust way, and Glenstone is at least making the right noises about attempting to facilitate that kind of experience.

“Sometimes, to be thoughtful, you have to offer a little resistance,” Emily Rales says. “The resistance is: You slow down the experience of moving through the site, and you offer greater opportunities for the quality of the experience. By holding back, you have greater impact.”


Philip Kennicott is the Pulitzer Prize-winning art and architecture critic of The Washington Post. He has been on staff at The Post since 1999, first as classical music critic, then as culture critic.

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