Outside the main building at Glenstone, the private museum with sprawling grounds in Potomac, Md., visitors encounter two monumental works by Richard Serra. Slashing across the grass and hillocks is one of the American sculptor’s classic oxidized steel-plate works, “Contour 290,” and on a plaza near the entrance to the original museum gallery is “Sylvester,” one of his torqued ellipses — curved steel plates that create a spiral maze of canted walls. Then, inside the galleries, there are two of his important early pieces from the 1960s.
Now the museum is adding another major work by the 82-year-old artist.
“We are long on Richard Serra’s work, there is no question about it,” says Emily Wei Rales, Glenstone’s director. “But a lot of people would agree that he is the greatest living sculptor, and we believe very deeply in his work and are very committed to it.”
Glenstone announced Monday the acquisition of a “large-scale work by Richard Serra.” The name or other details of the sculpture haven’t been revealed, beyond that it’s recent. But work has already begun on a 4,000-square foot concrete structure to house the new sculpture. Construction started in April, and the museum hopes to unveil the Serra in its specially designed, free-standing gallery in the spring or summer of 2022.
The addition of a substantial structure comes less than three years after the museum opened its Pavilions building in 2018, a cluster of interconnected gallery spaces designed by architect Tom Phifer of Thomas Phifer and Partners. That 204,000-square-foot space underscored Glenstone’s ambition in a world already crowded with contemporary art museums, many of them trophy projects of mega-rich collectors. The Pavilions enabled Glenstone to keep much of its significant permanent collection on display, as well as provide office space for its staff. The new building joined the 2006 Gallery building, which now hosts temporary exhibitions.
Phifer has been working closely with Serra to design the new structure.
“From the very beginning, he has wanted this to exist in a room,” the architect says. “So, we worked extremely closely to seek the proper proportions of that room, the proper amount of daylight, the proper experience moving in and out of it.”
The gallery will be made of concrete and set in the forest along what is called the Woodland Trail near the museum’s eastern perimeter. It will have skylights and vents left open to the air, and the entrance will be through a single door, left open during visiting hours. Renderings suggest a minimalist, boxlike form, approached via a winding path surrounded by grass, bushes and trees. Rales declined to disclose the costs of the building or the sculpture.
Phifer says he wanted to emphasize the experience of traveling to the building through nature. “The world begins to drop away, there is a rhythm with your arms and legs, you’re in nature and it is an experience of movement,” he says.
Serra’s work fuses an almost Platonic sense of perfect forms — planes, ribbons, cylinders, boxes — with the heavy, industrial chic of steel. His sculpture includes two essential types: those made from steel plates that form expressive lines and curves in open spaces, and those made of forged steel that create discrete objects that take on meaning by their relation to each other or enclosure within interior space.
The new work is being shipped from New Jersey on four flatbed tractor-trailers and will arrive at Glenstone this week. Construction will pause on the building while the work is installed, and then the pavilion will be finished around it.
“[It] is so different from the two other works that are already on-site that we felt compelled to present it,” Rales says. “It is a totally different expression of his principles and values and the things that have preoccupied him during his career.”
The Serra pavilion adds to the burgeoning collection of structures on the nearly 300-acre Glenstone campus, including the original Gallery, the Phifer-designed Pavilions building, an arrival hall and cafe, and three enigmatic cabinlike structures designed by artist Andy Goldsworthy.
Is there a point when the campus will be full?
“That’s the million-dollar question,” Rales says. “We keep saying, ‘We’re done, and you can’t destroy the serenity of the landscape and you can’t clutter things up.’ ”
But the Serra was a must-have for Rales and her husband, Mitch Rales, who with his brother Steven controls Danaher Corp., a conglomerate with holdings in science, technology, medicine and industry. Bloomberg has reported that the Glenstone Foundation’s most recent taxing filing showed it had a net asset value of $1.8 billion, which was before the Rales brothers announced in June a $3.3 billion transfer of Danaher shares to their individual foundations. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the largest art museum in the United States, reported net assets of $4.5 billion in 2020.
“We’re very fortunate that we are well resourced to take this on,” Emily Rales says of the Serra acquisition. “We had to pump the brakes when the pandemic hit, all projects were on hold.” Her goal, she says, was to prioritize staff employment.
The pandemic hit many museums hard, especially those reliant on ticket sales or revenue from visitors. But cultural institutions with large endowments have benefited from the booming stock market. Some large institutions face a mixed picture: decline in revenue from visitors with large increases in their endowment values. Glenstone is free to the public and limits visitor numbers to maintain a contemplative environment for art.