This D.C. Art Museum Is the Perfect Antidote to Overly Instagrammed Exhibitions

The regional museum near Washington, D.C. debuts a $200 million expansion, thrusting its holistic experience of art, architecture, and landscape into the international spotlight.

This D.C. Art Museum Is the Perfect Antidote to Overly Instagrammed Exhibitions

The Glenstone is ensconced in acres of serene countryside.

Courtesy of Iwan Baan / Glenstone Museum

Seamlessly embedded into the hills and woodlands of one of Washington, D.C.’s wealthiest suburbs, the Glenstone has been a sanctuary for city dwellers and visitors looking to escape the chaos since it first opened in 2006. This October, the venue unveils a $200 million expansion, including an additional 130 acres of serene surroundings and a brand new 204,000-square-foot Pavilions building, that creates an even more meditative environment combining art, architecture, and nature.

During the preview ahead of the reopening, I followed the silvery entrance path from the Arrival Hall through a rolling meadow to the Pavilions, the main museum building, my senses were heightened to the natural light, color, and sounds of the day. On either side, delicate wildflowers shook in the breeze to a choir of bugs and the occasional honking of geese. Up ahead, the smoky sky and drizzle complemented the grayscale patchwork of the stacked, concrete towers of the new complex.

Overlooking the scene from a hilltop was Jeff Koons’s massive flower-covered rocking-horse head, Split-Rocker, an appetizer for the whimsy, creativity, and innovation that the rest of the experience would hold.


Jeff Koons, “Split Rocker” (2000)

© Jeff Koons. Courtesy of Glenstone Museum

“From your first moments at Glenstone you experience a place with few distractions,” architect Thomas Phifer of Thomas Phifer and Partners has said. “The bustle of ordinary daily activities drops away, and your mind and soul prepare for an intimate encounter with art.” He’s right. By the time I’d reached the weighty front door of the Pavilions, the day’s distractions had indeed melted away. The artworks are from the private collection of married, billionaire founders Emily Wei Rales and Mitchell P. Rales. They range from works by household names like Andy Warhol to those that deserve more recognition like Ruth Asawa. The museum aims to “focus on challenging works of art, as those are the ones that stay with you [and] inspire other generations to be risk takers,” Emily Rales said during the preview.


The Passage in the Pavilions

Courtesy of Iwan Baan / Glenstone Museum

Once inside the new building’s subterranean cocoon of concrete and glass, the changing light and shadows create a unique journey for each guest. Each of the 11 rooms varies in size and lighting, and some were designed in close collaboration with the artists themselves. For instance, the tall, skylit Room 3 displays On Kawara’s Moon Landing triptych and is the only gallery with a wood floor, honoring his request prior to his death in 2014. The spacious, roofless Room 5, meanwhile, features Michael Heizer’s large Collapse sculpture, whose weathered-steel beams sink into the ground of crushed, rust-colored argillite stone. The Raleses granted sculptor Charles Ray “full control” over what to showcase in his dedicated Room 8. Out of their deep collection of his work, Ray selected four for the debut: Baled Truck, Table, Fall, and The New Beetle. He has said that “every stone, block, wall, floor, door, and window has been considered for the betterment of viewing art.”

Room 2 is the largest, showcasing the chronological and international scope of the collection. Iconic names like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko represent New York’s abstract expressionism movement, while lesser-known artists and movements include Shozo Shimamoto of Japanese gutai, Alighiero e Boetti of Italian arte povera, and Lygia Clark of Brazilian neo-concretism. The room culminates in the 1980s with politically charged art that still resonates today, including David Hammons’s controversial portrait of a blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesse Jackson entitled How Ya Like Me Now?


David Hammons, “How Ya Like Me Now?” (1988)

© David Hammons. Photo by TIm Nighswander / Courtesy of Glenstone Museum.

Wall didactics are purposefully sparse to encourage contemplation and conversation with knowledgeable guides who are part of a two-year professional development program that Emily Rales launched in 2017. “They are eager to engage,” she explained. “They are there to be your guide and have conversations.” Wooden benches designed by Washington, D.C. native and world renowned sculptor, Martin Puryear, provide spaces for a reflective pause throughout the museum. As impressive as the Glenstone’s exhibits may be, perhaps the most memorable piece of art is the Water Court. Connecting the rooms is a spa-like passageway with glass walls that frame the perimeter of this central, lush oasis. I was so entranced by its beauty that upon first glance, I nearly walked through the clear glass.


The Water Court’s glass walls frame the surrounding landscape.

Courtesy of Iwan Baan / Glenstone Museum

This was similar to an experience I had at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art near Copenhagen, whose glass corridors and walls overlooking the landscape create works of art of their own. It’s no surprise then that after visiting over 50 museums and galleries, Emily Rales cited the Louisiana as one of their main sources of inspiration. Its mastery at integrating art and architecture with the Scandinavian seascape is replicated by the Glenstone with the U.S. East Coast countryside. Beyond the walls of the main Pavilions space are a new café, patio, and the original gallery, which opened in 2006 and currently features five decades of works from trailblazer Louise Bourgeois. Even further beyond are 230 acres of woods, streams, and meadows in which visitors can wander and uncover multi-sensory works of art like Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s haunting sound installation Forest (for a thousand years).


Visitors at the Glenstone Museum can meander through miles of outdoor pathways.

Courtesy of Iwan Baan / Glenstone Museum

My experience ended much as it began, with me slowly walking, finding tranquility in my natural surroundings, completely lost in the moment. A polite guide tracked me down on a meadow trail and brought me back to reality. “We’re closing, you need to leave,” the guide said, and I reluctantly shuffled off toward the exit. “But there’s more to see and experience; I’m not done,” I thought to myself. And that’s the point, you’re never done here. With the beautiful nuances that the changing seasons are sure to bring, the Glenstone is a destination to return to several times.

The Glenstone reopens on October 4th. Admission is free. Crowd numbers are limited by timed reservations and slots are already filled for the next two months.

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