More often than not, whenever I’ve been at a dinner attended by sophisticated travelers and the topic of contemporary art museums come up, it isn’t the Broad’s flashy collection, the Whitney’s hoard displayed in a Renzo Piano building, or the prestigious Tate that they gush about. It’s nearly always the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art outside of Copenhagen—renowned not only for its collection but also its design fusing nature, architecture, and art.
It comes as no surprise then, that when the billionaire Mitchell Rales and his art curator wife Emily Wei Rales were seeking inspiration for the reported $200 million expansion of their private art museum, Glenstone, outside of Washington, D.C., they looked to the Louisiana.
“Mitch and I traveled to many museums,” Emily explained in her remarks on Friday at a press preview of the expansion, which opens to the public on October 4. “I think numbering 50,” she said, with the three most influential to their approach being the aforementioned Louisiana, the Menil in Houston, and the Beyeler outside Basel.
The centerpiece of their expansion, the Pavilions, is a collection of disassembled Brutalist concrete blocks designed by Thomas Phifer and Partners rising out of hills plotted by PWP Landscape Architecture. Once inside, one enters by descending a chic staircase of concrete and terrazzo lit by a skylight. Emerging from the tunnel-like entrance, one is immediately struck by the centerpiece of the centerpiece, the pièce de résistance of the whole thing, the Water Court.
Filled with water lilies, irises, and rushes, the Water Court draws together the disassembled concrete towers. Around the court are passages with large glass walls looking onto the water (I almost walked into one), some of which have major pieces of art including Martin Puryear’s “Big Phrygian.” Off of the passages are the new galleries, filled with dozens of works by prominent artists (Duchamp, Serra, Kusama, Basquiat, Giacometti, Rothko, and Twombly) and others that the couple love and think should be well known but maybe aren’t (Ruth Asawa). Some rooms are devoted entirely to one piece, like On Kawara’s triptych on the Apollo 11.
Whatever one thinks of the collection (I, for instance, don’t find Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel even remotely engaging, but I was mesmerized by the courtyard of red gravel off the pavilion passages in which a giant rectangular pit is filled with 15 steel beams composing Michael Heizer’s “Collapse”) or of the controversy surrounding the Rales and their collection (Senator Orrin Hatch spearheaded an inquiry into the Rales and other wealthy collectors over whether they were using their museums as tax write-off schemes, and the couple’s foundation is being sued by the expansion’s lead contractor), walking around the new Glenstone Pavilions one thing is certain—it’s a stunner.
The day of the press preview was overcast, which gave the Pavilions with its shades-of-grey and sleek modernity a vibe of luxury spa retreat or institution depending on the work in front of me. Yet part of the reason people will want to return to this place is to see this space in different weather, whether that be a day of overwhelming sun, or as I hope to experience, a day of nonstop rain. (Contributing to the spa retreat/institution vibe are the uniforms of the guides, designed by Ai Bihr, a friend of Emily’s who used to work for Steven Alan and Band of Outsiders. The best way I can describe these charcoal gray outfits is to say that these uniforms are what I imagine nurses in Star Trek might have worn.)
The journey at the new Glenstone does not begin at the Pavilions, however. While before it was just the 30,000-square-feet gallery designed by Charles Gwathmey opened in 2006 (and which now houses a fantastic look at the couple’s large Louise Bourgeois collection), today the complex spreads out over 230 acres. The journey begins at the Arrival Hall, a small rectangular building of cedar and white maple. Visitors then walk roughly ten minutes, past a glimpse of the gigantic Jeff Koons “Split-Rocker” covered in tens of thousands of flowers, to the Pavilions. This walk, say the Rales and the architect, was supposed to be a way to set a person’s state of mind.
“We hope you will slow down, that your pulse will slow down… to hear your breath,” Emily said in her remarks. (The couple also want people to refrain from using social media while inside the pavilions, but given how photogenic it is, I think they will be fighting a losing battle.) Phifer continued on that theme in his speech, saying that they hoped that after the walk, “when you finally stood in front of a work, you would get lost in it… weak at the knees because you were immersed in it.” For me, it wasn’t enough to shake the experience of driving through the garish D.C. suburb of Potomac, one of the U.S.’s megamansion capitals, to get to Glenstone. (Despite the size of the complex, many of the surrounding megamansion developments can be seen in the not-too-distant rolling hills along the ten minute walk.)
The Pavilions are far from the only addition. The grounds also host works by Richard Serra, Robert Gober, Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, and Ellsworth Kelly. Two café spaces have also been built, including one, the Patio, that overlooks the redesigned landscape.
The Rales have long been seen as cloistered art patrons, a description Mitchell Rales was quick to contradict in his speech. As such, to the general public and many members of the press, their approach to art collecting has remained a bit of a mystery. In her speech, Emily talked of their approach as collecting “seminal works of art since World War II… by the most innovative artists.” If that rings alarm bells and seems to reflect a mindset of a certain class of billionaire blue chip collectors, a few minutes spent with the couple dispels such notions.
“We can look at art history and identify moments when some work of art or artist's statement has made waves and really influenced the thinking of the public and other artists that were working alongside that artist,” Emily said in an interview with The Daily Beast. “A work in the Louise Bourgeois exhibition, “Destruction of the Father,” is absolutely seminal. It changed the way people looked at art in the ’70s. And she was one of the first to do work that was so grand, that was so theatrical.”
“We make our best choices. We buy things we love,” her husband continues. And they clearly love Bourgeois, particularly her ability reinvent herself (“Destruction of the Father” was made when she was in her 60s). It is Mitchell who gets almost excited about some of the lesser known pieces in the collection.
“If you go into the first room in Room 2, and you look at Ruth Asawa with the big boys. She’s every bit as good,” he whispers almost conspiratorially. “And nobody’s put her work up in that context. And so people will come through here, at least in our opinion, and they’ll look at these things and they might discover something here. They might think it does work and she’s a champion, or, eh, I’m not sure she holds up. But our position is, yes, she does.”
When I allude to the Rales’ role in shaping art history with their selections and call them “market makers,” Emily gently corrects me. “We don’t really care about the market,” she said. Not that their goals lack for ambition. Indeed, Emily went on to say that she and her husband “would love to think that they are shaping the canon of art history.”
The museum will be free for visitors, a commitment the Rales say will remain unchanged. It’s open from Thursday to Sunday, and reservations can be made online. The drive out from the center of D.C. takes roughly 30 minutes.
“This will be our gift to the world,” Mitchell Rales declared.