Glenstone museum provides a safe place to view art during the pandemic


Photo by Quinn Cook

WCHS senior Holly Shimabukuro stands outside of the entrance to the Pavilions building complex at the Glenstone art museum. The buildings hold most of Glenstone’s indoor artworks and installations, and has become the de-facto centerpiece of the mixed indoor-outdoor museum.

By Quinn Cook, News Editor

On hundreds of secluded acres found deep in Potomac, Md., sits a world far removed from the Washington, D.C. metro area’s dense suburban sprawl. One filled with rolling meadows, unimpeded streams, winding paths, abstract buildings, ceaseless art and a lasting impression of nature’s grandness and humanity’s significant place within it. 

This world is the Glenstone Museum; a private billionaire owned and maintained indoor and outdoor art museum completely free to the public. Its mix of spacious indoor and outdoor attractions has made Glenstone a coveted COVID-19 safe experience for those in the WCHS and Montgomery County community who wish to get their breath taken away only metaphorically.

Before entering Glenstone’s highly cultivated world, understanding its cultivators is helpful. Glenstone has been in the works for almost two decades since billionaire Mitchell Rales of the Danaher Corporation and his art curator wife, Emily Rales, embarked on the project. The museum first opened in 2006, but then went through some major expansions before officially reopening again in 2018 to the public. The main new additions were the Pavillions buildings that have become the gravitational centerpiece of Glenstone. 

At nearly 300 acres of preserved land, Glenstone stands as the single largest privately-owned contemporary art museum in the U.S. Its nature dominates in size and variety including everything from streams to meadows with outdoor sculptures throughout, and so do its levels of art and architecture. The total collection’s assets stand at around $1.4 billion, and some structures, like the Pavillions alone, took $219 million to build. 

Despite giant construction costs, the price of attendance remains at $0 for the public because of agreements made with Montgomery County’s government in exchange for tax exemptions. Glenstone ultimately hosts about 1,300 contemporary art pieces which include many paintings, sound installations, single-artist room installations, video works as well as outdoor and indoor sculpture pieces; all which are post-World War II works. 

But to truly appreciate that such substantial art, purposeful conservation and natural syncretism exists conveniently within the WCHS community, the actual in-person experience is necessary. 

The full self-paced experience takes visitors anywhere from one to three hours. The journey starts at a simple welcome center, which although temporarily closed, begins your relationship with Glenstone’s faded gray and poised buildings. From there, visitors enter Glenstone’s loop, turning left onto the rough, but unceasingly maintained gray gravel path that will lead them to and through the oncoming wonders. 

Continuing the path and crossing a bridge brings the first real picturesque sights: Glenstone’s yellow grass rolling meadows, giant art installations and the Pavilions complex, which is soon approached on the right. As the path climbs the swimming amber hills towards the Pavilions, visitors feel as if nature has predisposed them to an aisle through its endless rolls. Simplicity and volume collide in this initial stroll, as Montgomery County residents marvel at unimaginable amounts of unused land in an environment usually starved of unpurposed space. Simple wooden benches greet the path occasionally, offering peaceful and contemplative opportunities.  

After about a half-mile, visitors arrive at Glenstone’s de-facto centerpiece: the Pavilions. The amalgamation of gray rectangular buildings is made up of identical six-foot precast concrete blocks which are perfectly proportioned creating an unbelievably massive structure. While closed during the pandemic’s initial stages, the indoor galleries and installations are now open for public exploration. 

The many connected semi-buildings contain colossus halls and host 11 gallery rooms. Internal halls are hugged with 30-foot giant glass windows which by natural light illuminate the circular hall that guides visitors along countless works of art, themed rooms and full-room installation art pieces.  

Rooms differ in scope and volume, but maintain the sterile white gallery walls, soaring windows and continuous watch of assistants dressed in an identical plain gray robe-like uniform. The unrelenting perfection in architecture, art and staff gives off not only a calming and secure presence, but also a dystopian feel; a fictional like feeling teeing up the art perfectly. 

The art being so diverse in appearance and existentially provoking, makes it almost impossible to be described. Almost all works are abstract, and many have some degree of natural element. Inside the Pavilions is the 18,000-square-foot water garden, an outdoor deck structure surrounded by thousands of aquatic plants and towering windows. It acts as the internal centerpiece within Glenstone’s own centerpiece.  

Leaving the galleries the same way they came in, visitors continue on their loop beginning towards the real start of Glenstone’s natural emphasis. Before embarking though, visitors have the opportunity to stop at the Patio restaurant and peer into some structural exhibits and closed buildings before descending on the final leg. Visitors can also take a tangent to experience sound time-lapse forest installation, before turning around to walk the same gravel path along a fluttering stream. 

Following the stream, visitors turn uphill and back into the rolling yellow grasses, soon arriving at the loop’s last stop. This stop is Jeff Koons’s “Split Rocker” piece, a giant animal head metal frame fully covered with multi-colored flowers providing a perfect end to Glenstone’s inquisitive journey. Sitting upon an isolated hill, the piece epitomizes both Glenstone’s extraterrestrial energy and scope, and all the complex questions about art, humanity and nature that Glenstone provokes.

Ultimately, the reason this experience remains so magical and personal, despite a pandemic, is because of Glenstone’s prior adaptability and present adjustments. Among the many precautions taken, the museum has limited total capacity and staggered groups to a maximum of five people in 15-minute arrival time slots. Masks and individual group social distancing are required, certain paths are one-way only, specific gallery room restrictions have been enacted and some buildings are kept closed. 

Although free to the public, this does not mean Glenstone is easily accessible. Prospective visitors must try their chances to reserve tickets on Glenstone’s site at 10 a.m. on the first day of every month. Though being open every Thursday-Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with 15-minute time slots being scheduled until 3 p.m., tickets are often completely claimed within minutes. This does not mean getting them is impossible, but rather will take some fast clicking and a very worth it effort. 

Glenstone’s mission as listed on their website is “a place that seamlessly integrates art, architecture, and nature into a serene and contemplative environment.” Due to the pandemic and other present issues, many are starved of memorable positive experiences. Glenstone provides these much needed uplifting experiences and more. The museum sweeps visitors off their feet, making them feel small in a celestial masterpiece, but also important in an uninhibited paradise built for private joyful wandering.