by Mary Beth Ray
Imagine the intersection of good taste, fine art and design, environmental thoughtfulness, spectacularly landscaped acreage, and lots and lots of money. This is not a hypothetical; this is Glenstone.
This private museum and parkland in Potomac, Maryland, owned and operated by the nonprofit Glenstone Foundation, is home to the modern art collection amassed by Mitchell Rales and wife Emily Wei Rales, a curator. Glenstone is a 30-minute drive from Forest Hills and yet a world away. Tickets are free, but the wait for your chance to visit can be long, particularly since Glenstone’s Pavilions expansion opened to the public in October. It is well worth the wait.
As written in their materials, “Glenstone assembles post-WW II artworks of the highest quality that trace the greatest historical shifts in the way we experience and understand art of the 20th and 21st centuries.”
Glenstone really is the perfect place to experience modern art. From the moment you park in the “Parking Groves” between carefully placed stones and trees and ascend the gravel path, fields of wildflowers and native grasses abound.
Soon there’s a view of Jeff Koons’ charming Split Rocker, introducing themes of whimsy and the merging of art and nature.
The architecture of the museum buildings and the Rales’ home is modern and low-key. Rather than competing with the landscape, the design seems to highlight it. Water, stone, trees, grass, light and sculpture are the leading actors, and the buildings play a supporting role that allows the beauty of the art and landscape to shine.
A great example of that synthesis of art and nature is the “village” of three cottages of British artist Andy Goldsworthy.
These small huts are made of locally-sourced dry-stack stone, wood and clay. Despite the presence of other visitors, there is an element of mystery as you approach each entrance, and surprise as each cottage reveals its unique occupants.
In a grove nearby, one can perch on a tree stump and be surrounded by an incredible variety of sounds, seemingly coming from beyond, actually projected from 30 speakers nestled high in the tree tops. The range of sounds include wildlife calls, a singing chorus, and war. Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s Forest (for a thousand years) synthesizes the earthy woodland setting with the beauty and devastation of the human experience. Like many of the pieces at Glenstone, this installation asks the visitor to imagine (what does that sound like?) and remember (what does that remind me of?).
Richard Serra’s vast and spectacular Sylvester (2001) provides another secret room for the visitor to experience. Its bold outline resembles a shell, and each step inside leads further inward toward the quiet, reflective center. Where is the path leading me? What will I find inside? Finally it’s just you, your thoughts, and the sky above.
It’s hard to imagine a more perfect space to view modern art than inside the Pavilions, Glenstone’s new group of 11 galleries.
In some cases, artworks get their own gallery. In other cases, several works share a room. Big names dazzle, like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Alexander Calder and Willem de Kooning. Most viewers will nod in recognition at Rothko, Giacometti and Warhol. But The Pavilions are built around a large pond, the Water Court, and the way the light plays off of the gallery walls and artwork can be as seductive as some of the art.
Glenstone guides are friendly and knowledgeable, and for the most part, they are well-trained to make guests feel welcomed. They encourage guests to ask questions and experience the art in their own way, rather than be fed a script, which is refreshing. It’s hard to find fault with anything at Glenstone, but the guides’ futuristic gray shifts and tunics, the requirement to place even the smallest handbag in a locker, and admonitions not to touch the art, or take photos indoors, can lend a slightly Orwellian air. In fairness to the museum, none of the artwork is behind glass or protective barriers, and it is very easy to identify guides in case directions are needed.
My three friends and I had 2:30 p.m. tickets, and the museum closes at 5:00. We were just getting rolling when it was time to leave. I suggest earlier tickets, and making a day of it if you are able. My friend Becca really wanted to sit for hours in the sound exhibit and write a poem. Pat was hoping for a cup of tea in the new café. Katy was eager to hike more of the 230 acres of beguiling woodland trails, through meadows, forests and swamps. And I would have been very content to sit in a lounge chair and watch the play of light and sky on the pond, an art form that feels tranquilly timeless.
Free tickets for January were available at midnight on November 1st, on a first-come first-serve basis. They were snapped up within 12 hours. So be ready to spring when the February tickets are released at midnight on December 1st.
Glenstone also says it tries to accommodate visitors who arrive after noon without a reservation, but it makes no guarantees. And the museum says visitors must be 12 years old or older, because of the fragile nature of some of the works.
Find more helpful information for planning your visit at glenstone.org.
Glenstone Museum (glenstone.org) is located at 12100 Glen Road, Potomac, Maryland, 20854. The museum’s hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday through Sunday.
Correction: The original version of the story had the wrong first name for Emily Wei Rales, and said the Rales own the museum. The Glenstone Foundation is the owner.