An oasis of art

The expansion of Glenstone – with its modern masterpieces complemented by natural beauty and fresh, energetic architecture – is a blueprint for a new kind of museum experience.

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Glenstone, the private art museum on 230 acres of rolling pasture and woodlands outside Washington, is the brainchild of billionaire venture capitalist Mitchell Rales and his wife, Emily Rales, an experienced art-world professional. The two have been planning their museum for over a decade. They want visitors to experience Glenstone’s expanded campus – now double its original size – quite differently from a conventional city museum.

After arriving at the car park, you approach the museum buildings on foot along a meandering path framed by shivering leaves and shifting vistas. There are no buildings in sight. The idea is to slow you down, literally – and perhaps in other ways, too.

With the expansion, the Raleses haven’t just erected a few buildings and purchased more art to put in them. Blessed with seemingly unlimited funds (“Money will never really be an issue,” Mitchell Rales has said of Glenstone), they have acquired neighboring land, shaped the landscape and carefully molded an experience — a way of encountering art — that they hope will be unique.

To describe Glenstone as a museum of contemporary art doesn’t quite do it justice. Yes, the art is the focus. The Raleses are passionate about it, and they have been patient, methodical and deeply thoughtful about what they’ve collected.

But it’s not enough for them to hang pictures on walls or place sculptures on plinths. They want to induce nothing less than an altered state of mind. They’re hoping to remove some of the baggage many people bring to contemporary art (and museum-going in general) so that a new mood, a new susceptibility, kicks in.

Parking lot to Arrival Hall

Each of the three parking lots is defined by its own grid, or bosque, of trees, immediately setting the tone of Glenstone as a sylvan retreat. The main lot contains 30 sycamore hybrids; the others are planted with red and white oaks. Rather than placing parking around the new museum complex, the lots have been positioned about a third of a mile away. This has allowed the designers to play not just with space, but also with the visitor’s experience of time. The walk from the lots to the Arrival Hall is designed to take at least two minutes along a curving path heavily planted with native hardwoods and redbuds.

Arrival Hall to the Pavilions

The promenade from the Arrival Hall to the Pavilions will take at least seven minutes to walk and is part of the deliberate, if subtle, effort to get visitors to leave the bustle behind and set themselves up for a communion with the contemporary art. Although it is one connected building, the Pavilions reads as a series of discrete structures and suggests a timeless Italian hill town. The winding path produces a series of alternating glimpses of the museum, open and veiled, distant and near, until the path takes on the straight geometry of the museum’s architecture.


The Pavilions complex, designed by Thomas Phifer and Partners, is the most conspicuous new feature at Glenstone. Phifer and his team, who have worked on galleries and museums before, are good at creating austere, rectilinear forms (in this case, stacked blocks of cast concrete) that at first seem to jut out abruptly, but gradually — through subtle variations in surface and scale — come to feel comfortably integrated into the landscape.

The Pavilions complement the buildings designed by the late Charles Gwathmey that opened in 2006. They add 50,000 square feet of exhibition space — more than five times what was available in the original building. Much of that is flexible, to cater to changing displays, but some of it is purpose-built to display works by particular artists.

The Pavilions nestle into a natural rise in the landscape. You enter, then descend into the galleries, which surround an enormous water court covered with waterlilies.


The pastoral landscape consists of 230 acres of meadow, woodland, stream valley and — next to the original museum building, the Gallery — a sinuous lake. This natural design belies the extensive earthwork and planting of the site to soften the presence of new buildings that total almost a quarter-million square feet of space. The emphasis on trees is emblematic of the importance of the landscape to the museum’s character. In preparation for the expansion, about 8,000 trees were planted, many of large girth. The landscape improvements also included extensive revival of the once silted and eroded streams that run through the site along with sweeping and undulating meadows. An environmental center shows visitors how Glenstone’s organic and sustainable horticulture is put into practice.

Moving one tree is a major undertaking. Over the past five years, crews have transplanted 200 trees at Glenstone, a process that includes the careful excavation of soil to leave a root ball small enough to relocate a tree but large enough to minimize the transplant shock. Three mature sycamore hybrids were moved from near the Richard Serra outdoor sculpture “Contour 290” and placed between the museum’s cafe and staff wing. Each had a root ball approximately 19 feet in diameter. But the largest tree was an 80-year-old sycamore that was shifted from the vicinity of the new museum, 900 feet north, to near the starting point of the arrival path. That tree’s root ball was 35 feet across and rested on a raft of steel pipes framed in steel girders. The moving company, Wolfe House and Building Movers of Bernville, Pa., usually relocates historical buildings and used similar equipment and techniques to reposition the sycamore.

Art in the Pavillions

Among the first works you see in the Pavilions are several masterpieces of American postwar art. Arriving at the discrete galleries in Room 2, for instance, you encounter three ravishingly beautiful woven metal sculptures suspended from the ceiling. Made in the 1950s, they’re by Ruth Asawa, the California artist who was the daughter of Japanese immigrants and later studied at the experimental Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Utterly original and technically inventive, these pieces are the last word in elegance and do much to set the mood of these first galleries: calming, contemplative, assured.

After the Asawa sculptures, you enter a gallery with an unusual, horizontally formatted abstract painting by Mark Rothko from 1958. The work, which sold at Christie’s in 2003 for more than $16 million, is titled “Number 9 (White and Black on Wine).” It was made when Rothko, an artist who tilted at transcendence but was increasingly prone to depression, was transitioning from a wide repertoire of bright, glowing colors to a narrower range of indistinct maroons, blacks, mauves and plums.

Farther into the Pavilions, things get more frenetic as the work switches from masterly abstraction to pop art (look for great pieces by Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol) and on into minimalism and conceptual art.

There is postwar work from Japan, Germany and Brazil. And near the end are examples of art with an explicit political punch by Barbara Kruger, Bruce Nauman and David Hammons. Hammons is an African American artist celebrated for his enigmatic but pointed provocations. His “How Ya Like Me Now?” (the line is from a rap song by Kool Moe Dee) shows the Rev. Jesse Jackson as a blond man with blue eyes. When the Hammons piece was installed in a parking lot as part of a 1989 exhibition about the blues, black culture and modernism, it was attacked with sledgehammers by a group of African American men who thought it disparaged Jackson. Hammons repaired it and now displays it cordoned off by a barrier made of wire and sledgehammers, and with an American flag.

Natural light

Most art museums depend on artificial light. They want uniformity and consistency, and they need to protect delicate works from sun damage. In the galleries of the Pavilions, the light is entirely natural. Although this may seem a minor detail, it is one of Glenstone’s most striking features.

Natural light is always changing — with cloud cover, time of day and the seasons. It has an organic, breathing quality that helps bring works of art to life. It connects indoor displays to an outdoor atmosphere. At its best, it can banish the sense that you’re in a mausoleum rather than an art museum.

In the Pavilions, the architects have used clerestories (high windows), oculi (circular openings) and lay lights (made from a translucent glass-fiber composite) to harness, filter and diffuse the light from outside. The effect — as in some of the best architecture by Louis Kahn, Tadao Ando and Yoshio Taniguchi — is complex, subtle and oftentimes bewitching.

Michael Heizer

One space at Glenstone where a sense of connection to nature is conspicuously absent is Room 5. This is where the Raleses have installed a specially commissioned sculptural installation by Michael Heizer, a pioneer of the land-art movement, which emerged in the late 1960s and sought to work in and with nature, often on a giant scale.

Room 5 is not actually a room in the conventional sense, as it’s completely open to the heavens. But the high, windowless walls cut off sight lines to the surrounding landscape, helping create an almost dystopian atmosphere of dread that Heizer’s sculpture only compounds. The work, “Collapse,” consists of 15 heavy beams of rusted steel that appear to have been tossed haphazardly into a deep rectangular pit lined with vertical walls. The pit is not fenced off. The beams, which lean both against each other and the edges of the pit, jut out aboveground at various points. Your eye follows the stark diagonals they create into the cavity below; your stomach inevitably follows. The effect is a kind of vertigo or acrophobia — exciting and unpleasant at the same time.

Viewing Gallery

The long, curvy wooden bench in the Viewing Gallery was made by Martin Puryear and Michael Hurwitz. It’s one of three benches in the Pavilions that both men collaborated on. Hurwitz is a maker of fine furniture based in Philadelphia, and Puryear is a sculptor who, like Hurwitz, works mostly in wood. Puryear, who was chosen in August to represent the United States at the next Venice Biennale in 2019, has a number of key works in the Glenstone collection, including “Big Phrygian,” the most arresting of a number of sculptures he made based on the form of the Phrygian, or “liberty,” cap worn during the French Revolution.

The focal point of this room, though, is the landscape itself. The scene is of a native grass and perennial meadow that falls away and then rises to meet a distant knoll, crowned with a thicket of honey locust trees. The scene is a reminder of the power of landscape to create a setting as well as a mood and to project its own aesthetic quality. The vista appears static, but the plant growth will offer shifts in texture and color from month to month. Between the seasons, the sunlight will ebb and flow until, in winter, the distant locusts will be backlit by the late-day sun.

Robert Gober

Look out in the Pavilions for an immersive installation by Robert Gober. First shown in 1992, the work combines a sense of political betrayal with an almost shattering sensitivity to fear, death and loneliness, all brought on by the AIDS crisis.

It evokes a dream Gober had, he said, when “every other day someone I knew or someone that a friend of mine knew was getting severely sick.” In the dream, he said, “I found a room in my home that I had never known existed. It was full of daylight streaming in through open windows, and there were white porcelain sinks hung on all of the walls with their taps running.”

At the heart of the installation is a large room, its walls covered with a mural of a forest. High on the walls are windows letting in light but covered with bars, making the space both forest and prison. The walls are punctuated by sinks with running water, and stacks of newspapers are heaped in the corners and along the walls. The sound of trickling water is soothing, even purifying. But the entire installation is a deliberate conundrum.

The Water Court

The Water Court is the center of the web of galleries in the Pavilions, directing the eye inward and providing a unifying element as significant as the constant concrete fabric of the building. A viewing platform sits on one side, but there is no boardwalk through the Water Court. The aquatic garden is meant to be viewed, not visited. Its scale is extraordinary, 18,000 square feet. Containing 260,000 gallons of water, it is kept clear through a recirculating and biological filtration system. The floor of the pond is marked by submerged, steplike forms inspired by those at the Brion Tomb, a chapel, family cemetery and water garden by 20th-century modernist architect Carlo Scarpa near the Northern Italian hill town of Asolo. The Glenstone Water Court, which has its own gardener, varies in depth from four to 48 inches to house a total of 4,589 hardy aquatic plants. These include flag and Louisiana irises, pickerel rushes, cattails, thalias and waterlilies. The plants will die back in winter, when surface icing will add its own ornament. The recirculating system will prevent the pond from fully freezing.

If you go

Glenstone, 12100 Glen Rd., Potomac, Md.

Expansion opens Oct. 4. Admission is free, but reservations are required.

Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday through Sunday.


About this story

Story by Sebastian Smee and Adrian Higgins. Video by Jayne Orenstein and Breanna Muir. Photos by Goran Kosanovic. Design and development by Jake Crump.