Glenstone — the recently expanded museum of contemporary art on the Potomac — is the most exciting new private museum in America. Envisioned by its founders, Emily and Mitch Rales, as “not only a place, but a state of mind,” Glenstone is a 21st-century version of the Frick, the Phillips Collection or the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. And it’s the equivalent, among its contemporaries, of such celebrated art sanctuaries as Naoshima in Japan and Louisiana in Denmark.
See it for yourself. Relax into it. I think you’ll probably agree.
That doesn’t mean you won’t have legitimate reservations. Some of those reservations may have to do with the art, which is most definitely not like the Phillips, the Frick or the Gardner. I happen to like it — a lot — and I’ll happily proselytize (it’s really no strain) on behalf of such artists as Ruth Asawa, Louise Bourgeois, Richard Serra, Eva Hesse, Martin Puryear, Cy Twombly, Mark Rothko, Lee Bontecou, Willem de Kooning, Lynda Benglis, Martin Kippenberger, Jackson Pollock, Yayoi Kusama and David Hammons, all of whom are present at Glenstone, along with many others of similar stature. (And now, you can add Lee Krasner to that list: The Raleses just bought one of her paintings for $11.7 million, doubling the previous record for Krasner, who was married to Jackson Pollock.) But I concede, if you insist, that not all of it is for everyone.
Other reservations may stem from the fact that the Glenstone experience can feel, at least initially, a little weird. A little too . . . controlling. This is trickier territory, and you could argue it both ways. But on balance, I’d argue, it’s actually the opposite: More than most museums, Glenstone, which is situated on an undulant, nearly 300-acre campus in verdant horse country, wants you to have your own experience.
Certainly, on my first return visit since last year, I watched scores of people doing just that. The day was overcast yet warm. Spring leaves were screechy green against the slate sky. Birdsong — little sonic bubbles let loose on the air — provided an intermittent descant of optimism. Up on the hill, Jeff Koons’s “Split-Rocker” was coming into flower. The rust-colored surface of Serra’s “Contour 290,” a curving steel wall in the cushioning fold of a nearby slope, was being embroidered by busy spiders and insects. And down by the Sandy Branch River, a boardwalk zigzagged up through a wrinkle in the bosky slope. The art and the setting seemed in wordless agreement, like lovers making up after a night of wordy squabbling. There wasn’t a didactic wall text in sight.
Yet it’s strange: Even as you sigh and breathe more deeply at Glenstone, you can’t help but feel that the people who set all this up — a billionaire couple who live on the property — have designs on you. And part of you — or part of me, anyway — wants to resist.
In an era that has seen private museums multiply around the world, few, if any, have been as carefully thought through as Glenstone. It’s hard not to be impressed. But it’s also true that the whole thing can begin to feel a bit Willy Wonka-ish.
Open Thursday through Sunday, Glenstone is free. Yet the Raleses want to preserve the experience as they intended it — “uncrowded, unrushed” — so they limit admission to 400 to 450 visitors a day. That means you need a ticket. But since the reopening last year, demand has been so high that it’s maddeningly difficult to get one. (If you come by public transport, you can get in without a ticket, but the Montgomery Country Ride On buses are so infrequent that a trip from the city may take most of the morning. You can also arrive by car after midday without a ticket and the museum will try to accommodate you, but admission isn’t guaranteed.)
On top of all that, children younger than 12 are not admitted. That seems unfortunate, since it’s hard to imagine any child who wouldn’t love the place. And, oh, by the way, you can’t take photos in the galleries.
In all of these ways, Glenstone is the opposite of such grand public museums as the National Gallery of Art, the Metropolitan Museum or the Art Institute of Chicago. You know those places are meant for you. They’re part of the urban fabric, staffed by benign retirees and charged with youthful, antic energy. You enter off a busy city street, dodging school groups and their nervous, shouty chaperones. You feel connected to a history, a civic ideal, which is messy and imperfect but richly layered and democratic.
At Glenstone it’s different. If you come by car, you turn off into what feels like a very private estate, with two men waiting in the middle of the road. You come to a halt and lower the window. They’re there to greet and direct you — they’re all smiles — but the situation is intimidating. You feel as if you’ve driven onto the secret compound of a cult or a paranoid foreign government in exile.
The Arrival Hall beside the car park feels like a vast, abandoned Nordic sauna, and the bathrooms are painted a white so incandescently bright that you feel obliged to don sunglasses. The staff wear futuristic gray uniforms. It’s all just slightly odd.
From here, however, everything changes.
After the Arrival Hall, you follow a winding path on a slight incline through a lush meadow. Everything leads your eye upward and outward. The sky seems suddenly big. Your ears tune into a new frequency. A cluster of gray rectangular blocks comes into view. It’s Glenstone’s new building, the Pavilions, designed by Thomas Phifer and Partners.
You walk in and, again, the ambiance is intimidatingly hygienic, like a house in which nothing “sparks joy” and as a result absolutely everything has had to go. But then you walk down a set of white steps with wooden handrails and . . . oh, it’s lovely! A wide internal walkway, walled on one side with glass, surrounds a giant lily pond.
It’s an “A-ha!” moment, not unlike walking into the courtyard of the Gardner Museum. It’s as if you’ve entered a beautiful sanctuary, possibly in another hemisphere, maybe another era. Although you’ve descended, you actually feel a kind of lift, a buoyancy, such as what birds must feel when they catch warm air currents. You exhale. You feel liberated from everyday cares. You’re ready for the art.
And here it comes: Asawa, de Kooning, Pollock, Rothko . . .
Still, part of you may still be holding out. It just looks so . . . expensive. So you may wonder: Do I belong here? Who is Glenstone for? Whose ego is its existence stroking? If it’s really the upshot of an altruistic urge, why, out of all the possible options, this particular outlet for it?
I can’t answer those questions. But I do think, for what it’s worth, that Glenstone is for you. It’s a remarkable place. It’s rewarding. And it’s also remedial: It provides a welcome antidote to prevailing ideas of how art should be experienced. Instead of compromising aesthetic encounters with endless commentary, it lets you make up your own mind.
Glenstone has a clear, underlying philosophy, which has emerged in large part from the Raleses’ understanding of how artists themselves want their art to be seen. It proposes that art should not be glibly explained away by wall labels but experienced and reflected upon.
According to this philosophy, it’s not a problem — in fact, it’s to the good — if, in the course of experiencing the art, you find yourself on unstable ground, indulging in interpretive guesswork or blind speculation.
You won’t be harmed. You may be motivated to go away and learn more. Or you may choose to engage in conversation with one of the uniformed attendants (who, from everything I noticed, are very adept at making such conversations interesting). But even if you don’t care to converse and don’t wish to go away and learn more, you will have seen something new. You are free to come away from the experience changed or unchanged. No one will hold you to account.
This is a philosophy I like.
In fact, I love it. But it does make some visitors uncomfortable. Much of the art is difficult to get a handle on if you know nothing about the lives of the artists who made it, or the ideas from which it emerged.
My sense is that young people are more relaxed about this than older people, who tend, as one gallery attendant told me, to want a “takeaway.”
“I think it’s super cool,” one teenager told me when I asked how she was finding Glenstone. She and a friend were there to complete a school assignment, which involved watching a video by Pipilotti Rist. “I don’t know exactly what I was expecting, but it’s unlike any museum I’ve been to before,” she said.
For others, the experience is more ambivalent. When they first walk into the Pavilions, they may feel as if the museum is snubbing them, ignoring their helplessness, letting them wallow in ignorance. They may panic, or feel let down by their hosts. I noticed in the first two galleries in particular that the attendants had to work hard to challenge assumptions, soothe insecurities and explain Glenstone’s philosophy.
They were good at it, though. And what seemed to emerge were genuine and fruitful exchanges, subtle shifts in attitude and a new willingness to relax into the experience.
I wouldn’t want all museums to follow Glenstone’s approach. Good didactics and judicious displays can provide crucial information, helping people find ways into art that can otherwise seem esoteric.
But I think it’s wonderful that places like Glenstone and the Gardner Museum (which has, since Gardner’s day, taken a similar approach, emphasizing spiritual experience over academic interpretation) exist. These places may be eccentric. They may even appear slightly fanatical. And, yes, they may be possible only in a society that believes good can come from tolerating the pet projects of the ultrarich.
But they’re also a gift, providing extraordinary settings in which to present high-level creativity in its many dazzling forms. They recognize that art cannot, finally, be reduced to pat explanations. And they are willing — at a time when so many forces are working in the opposite direction — to nurture the imagination, to give it room to move.