Glenstone, a Private Art Xanadu, Invests $200 Million in a Public Vision

Posted September 21, 2018 5:29 p.m. EDT

POTOMAC, Md. — When they were building a gallery here at Glenstone for Robert Gober’s 1992 “Untitled” immersive installation — featuring spouting sinks, stacked newspapers and woodland scenery — Mitchell P. Rales and Emily Wei Rales worked with the artist to design the room to his specifications. That meant lowered ceilings, special plumbing, placement of the exit signs, consultation with a theatrical lighting specialist and about 70 meetings with the architects.

Similarly, Charles Ray spent hours arranging the four sculptures in his gallery down to the inch. And On Kawara — before he died in 2014 — was explicit about how he wanted his triptych of Date Paintings, “Moon Landing,” to be exhibited. As a result, it’s the only gallery with a wooden floor.

These are the lengths to which the Raleses went in shaping Glenstone as a bespoke temple for artists they have collected in depth over the last 12 years in this affluent exurb of Washington. Works by the likes of Brice Marden, Pipilotti Rist and Roni Horn will now be displayed in a new 204,000-square-foot museum building called the Pavilions, designed by Thomas Phifer. It opens Oct. 4, but the first block of reservations have already been snapped up. The next block becomes available Oct. 1.

Glenstone is among the large private art museums that continue to proliferate around the country, including the Broad Museum and the Marciano Art Foundation in Los Angeles. Next year, at least two more are scheduled to open: that of billionaire J. Tomilson Hill in Chelsea and of newsprint magnate Peter M. Brant in the East Village. (Brant also has the Brant Foundation Art Study Center in Greenwich, Connecticut.) They are part of a long tradition, including the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, the Frick Collection in New York and the Phillips Collection in Washington.

Private museums have been criticized as vanity projects where wealthy people take great art out of circulation and avoid taxes by keeping their collections in outbuildings and only occasionally making the art accessible to visitors. Collectors can deduct the market value of any art, cash and stocks they donate to their museums or foundations, even when those are only a stone’s throw from their living rooms.

Glenstone is among 11 private museums whose tax-exempt status was investigated by the Senate Finance Committee in 2015 regarding their degree of public accessibility and lending policies. “Tax-exempt museums should focus on providing a public good and not the art of skirting around the tax code,” Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah and the committee’s chairman, told The Times then. “Under the law, these organizations have a duty to promote the public interest, not those of well-off benefactors, plain and simple.” The IRS has yet to respond.

But Rales, 62, an industrialist, and Wei Rales, 42, a former curator and dealer, maintain that they have always been generous lenders — as well as donors — of their renowned collection of modern and contemporary art. And now they are doubling down on the public aspect of their collection, having completed a five-year expansion of Glenstone — including two new cafes and three parking areas — that will be free to the public (with scheduled visits) four days a week (and, eventually, possibly six) from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

“They’re giving birth to a whole new institution,” said dealer Matthew Marks, who has artists in Glenstone’s collection.

In 2006, the Raleses opened a 30,000-square-foot limestone exhibition space on 100 acres, designed by Charles Gwathmey. It was a hidden gem on the grounds of a former hunt club; in its first seven years of operation, only 10,000 people visited.

The $200 million expansion adds 11 rooms constructed of stacked concrete blocks that are connected by a glass-walled passage and surround an 18,000-square-foot water court. You can see the family’s home in the distance.

In a lengthy recent interview at the new museum, the couple said they had decided to expand so that they could share more of their collection with more people and to entice groups from neighboring schools, where arts education is at risk. At a time when many collectors are buying art as an asset class, the pair fall into the category of those intense — indeed obsessive — owners who deliberate over every purchase. They only collect artists with a 15-year track record and rarely sell, except to buy something better, often with the artist’s approval. In 2013, they sold one of Jackson Pollock’s classic drip paintings — “No. 19, 1948” — at Christie’s for $58.3 million to help fund their acquisition of 144 works from Toronto collector and curator Ydessa Hendeles.

Dealer David Zwirner said the Raleses “really want to contextualize what they buy — where does the work of art fit into the production of an artist?”

“What this museum means to the United States is more akin to what Getty did, what Hirshhorn did — it’s at that level,” he continued, referring to J. Paul Getty and Joseph H. Hirshhorn.

In an increasingly market-driven art world, artists say they appreciate the Raleses approach. “These people sought my work out, and they kept coming back,” said Horn, whose two large solid cast-glass cylinders are on view in the passage along the water court.

“I’ve never been a hot artist,” she said. “I’m not going to be a big number at auction in my life. Others may not have the courage to make the kind of commitment they’ve made.”

She added, “I don’t care if they are getting a tax break.” The Glenstone addition also has a strong outdoor component, with 130 acres of meadows, woodlands and streams, designed by Adam Greenspan and Peter Walker of PWP Landscape Architecture. Among the sculptures integrated into the landscape are those by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Ellsworth Kelly and Richard Serra. The couple employ a full-time horticulturist to tend to the 24,000 flowers in Jeff Koons’ monumental “Split-Rocker.”

The expansion includes an environmental center, offering educational programs, that will open in the spring. “We’re tree-huggers,” Rales said.

In addition to those of Gober, Ray and On Kawara, the museum’s nine single-artist installations belong to Martin Puryear, Michael Heizer, Rist, Lygia Pape, Marden and Cy Twombly.

Installations were painstakingly conceived in collaboration with the artist or the artist’s estate. “We feel it’s our responsibility to ask them, ‘How would you like this shown?'” Emily Wei Rales said.

The couple visited Heizer in the desert and built a rectangular pit at Glenstone for his sculpture of 15 steel beams. They even placed a line of matching raincoats in a closet for those who want to visit the piece in inclement weather.

The inaugural exhibition in the Pavilions demonstrates the range of the collection, in a gallery featuring 65 artworks by 52 artists, dating from 1943 to 1989. They include examples of movements including abstract expressionism, Gutai, Brazilian modernism, Arte Povera, minimalism and post-minimalism.

“We have our wish list, and we’ve been slowly going through it,” Mitchell Rales said of their artists, “those we feel have made real innovations, shifted the way we look at art, changed the definition of art.”

There are household names like Alexander Calder, Willem de Kooning, Agnes Martin and Mark Rothko. But there is also work by Akira Kanayama (Japan), Sergio Camargo (Brazilian) and Alighiero e Boetti (Italy). And an abundance of work by women. (The story of minimalism is told through artists like Jo Baer, Anne Truitt and Agnes Martin, not just Carl Andre and Dan Flavin.) Similarly, the Raleses have hung a just-acquired flag by artist-activist Faith Ringgold, which includes the N-word, next to one by Jasper Johns. “History is always ripe for reinterpretation,” Rales said.

Glenstone has a staff of 130, including 24 young professionals working as guides. The Raleses said they toured about 50 other museums before expanding their own.

Rales has been collecting since 1990. In 2005, he joined forces with Emily Wei, a former director at the Gladstone Gallery in Manhattan. They married in 2008 and have two children, 5 and 8. Their collection now numbers about 1,300 pieces, including sound art, film, video and works on paper.

Glenstone aims to admit about 400 people a day, to ensure that visitors can have a contemplative experience. Instagram photos are discouraged indoors, where the space has a naturally lit, Zen-like serenity, with benches for resting designed by Puryear and meandering paths.

Indeed, the collectors said they wanted plenty of breathing room — no “Mona Lisa” crowds or selfie sticks, very little wall text and no stanchions forcing people to keep their distance from the art. The message to visitors is clear. “Look — really use your eyes,” Emily Wei Rales said. “Allow that to be your primary experience.”

Event Information:


The museum in Potomac, Maryland, reopens by reservation Thursday to Sunday on Oct. 4. Admission is free; 301-983-5001, glenstone.org.