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The Cult of Contemporary Art: Experiencing the Glenstone Museum

In a city filled with art museums, the idea of venturing beyond Washington, DC, to Potomac, Maryland, to enjoy contemporary art may not be initially appealing. For many, contemporary art is not “real” art, it’s something a child could do and whose merits are frequently questioned. But a visit to the Glenstone Museum quickly dispels this notion. The museum’s commitment to featuring art and nature in their highest forms sets it apart and presents an opportunity for an unforgettable, if slightly unconventional, experience. 

I don’t often step out of DC, so as I was driving down a road lined with unnecessarily large houses on lots devoid of any nature, save their grass lawns, it dawned on me that empty space in nature creates a sense of uneasiness. I kept thinking about how, despite the vast space between houses, there was a sense that neighbors could constantly watch each other out of the unobstructed views of their windows. The houses even felt totally out of place, like a dollhouse that miraculously grew overnight.

When I got to Glenstone, the serenity and isolation of the arrival building and the gray-uniform-donning employees with iPads in hand gave me a strong sense that this would be a peculiar experience. They handed me a map, but what was to come still seemed mysterious. I’d yet to see any art or get a sense that I was at a museum. After passing through the arrival center, I started the uphill walk to the main building—the Pavilions. Along the way, I was greeted by a grassy meadow and Jeff Koons’ “Split-Rocker”—a 37-foot-tall half-dog, half-dinosaur sculpture inspired by children’s rockers. When in bloom, it’s covered in real, multicolored flowers that from a distance blend together to create both stark lines and subtle gradients. This oversized children’s toy passively watching over me reminded me of the lack of privacy I felt during my drive. As I continued the walk, a series of gray and white minimalist cuboid structures—again, the Pavilions—slowly rose from behind the hill. The building perfectly integrated with the space around it; the line between architecture, art, and nature began to blur. And yet, there was still a sense of artificiality that imbued a sense of unease within me.

Photo Credit: The Washington Post

Interestingly, the museum refrains from presenting extensive written information about the art inside the galleries, but they do offer a tour of the grounds and outdoor sculptures. I, alongside a group of several granola couples over 60, were led on a one-and-a-half hour tour by Tim, one of the grounds workers. He opened our tour by explaining that, “Nothing is by chance, even though it’s our goal to make it look that way.” Creating this forested oasis required buying out over 30 families, spending $25,000 per acre on planting meadows, and relocating sycamores with 23-foot root balls until they were at the exact location and angle desired by the owners. The earlier effect of the Pavilions emerging from the hill was also formulated; the landscape architects constructed the hill using the dirt from the land cleared to build the Pavilions to create a better view from one of the galleries. Although humanity has sought out ways to perfect nature for centuries, and the Raleses, the billionaire couple behind the museum, have certainly increased biodiversity in the area, something disquieting behind this highly cultivated land extended to some of my experiences in the galleries. That same desire to craft a perfect landscape, regardless of cost or feasibility, existed in everything from the water court to the cafes. 

In my conversations with others who have visited Glenstone, the comparison to a cult inevitably comes up. If the docents in their gray uniforms are shepherds, the buildings and outdoors are places of worship, and the art is the revelation, then the visitors are called to be the flock. While the Raleses want each person to have their own experience with the art, when you learn about the amount of thought that went into every square inch of the space and the intense level of collaboration with artists in designing how their work will be displayed, that becomes difficult. The art almost becomes an object to be worshiped, it feels like there is a prescribed way to interact with it, and if you don’t reach the desired conclusion on your own, you feel that you aren’t getting the most out of the experience. The Raleses ask that “you get yourself primed to be challenged,” as there can be difficult aspects of the visit, the primary one being the precious little information Glenstone provides about the works. Walking through the galleries, the only information you can expect to find are the titles, artists, mediums, and dates of creation. 

The lack of wall texts can make the experience feel like you’re being thrown into the deep end. While the role of the docents—the hosts who are stationed at most rooms—is to answer questions and have conversations, approaching them can be incredibly intimidating, especially when you simply want basic information about artists (who they tout as some of the most influential of the century). While much of the art at the museum is stunning and can be enjoyed without additional information, the lack of wall texts means that you are looking at these works without any context, which can also create barriers to deeper appreciation. 

But, despite, or perhaps because of, all this subtle pomp, the museum experience works. Rather than mainly engaging only with works with written and audio descriptions, as I tend to do at other museums, I let myself spend time with whatever I gravitated towards. Trying to figure out the construction behind Ruth Asawa’s interlocking, tied-wire sculptures was a mind boggling experience that I didn’t want to walk away from. Exploring Robert Gober’s installation room Untitled (1992) entailed slowly inspecting the dozens of stacks of newspapers scattered around the room that had been strategically curated, listening to the constant stream of water flowing from the six white sinks, and inspecting his painted jungle was my favorite experience, although it did benefit from the docent sharing context about Gober’s connection to the AIDS epidemic. Other visitors seemingly fulfilled the Rales’ objective, as many of them were clearly drawn into deep engagements with the works. I was struck by the number of teens wandering around with friends, seemingly skeptical of some works, yet impressed by others. One couple spent at least fifteen minutes in close discussion of Tree of Knowledge by Hilma af Klint, with their faces just inches away from the set of drawings. 

While the Pavilions will be closed through 2025 for renovations, I highly encourage visiting the “Iconoclasts” exhibition, which opened in November 2023 and features more than 50 artists from their collection at the Gallery, the original building on the property. In the exhibition, the Raleses have brought together a concretized timeline of some of the most significant artists from the 1910s to 1990s. The chronological ordering works well and at times even feels playful. While looking at Number 1 (1952) by Jackson Pollock from a certain angle, you can see a Giacometti statue pointing his finger at The Eye is the First Circle (1960) by Lee Krasner, Pollock’s wife, almost beckoning you to move forward and feel the connection between these works. While Yves Klein patented the deep blue hue, “International Klein Blue,” in 1960, seeing more subtle but still striking uses of blue in Bill Traylor’s paintings, prior to seeing Klein’s work, feels like watching the development of the potency of a color.

Glenstone is vastly different from other museums I've gone to. Being in a space that’s so quiet, isolated, and yet faultless can feel otherworldly. Contemplating all the work that goes into it, from the landscape architecture to the intricate design of every detail of the exhibits, can feel like a lot. The constant presence of the docents and the lack of information is also disorienting. But none of this prevented me from enjoying my visit. The walks are peaceful and a welcomed break from DC, the art is impressive and the outdoor sculptures are easy to interact with, and while I spent a lot of time thinking about whether it’s possible to go too far in designing an art experience, I appreciate that there are people who care enough about art to dedicate themselves to finding the ideal way to present it. Thinking back to the houses on the drive, part of what was so uncomfortable was seeing the emptiness in something obviously meant to be perfect. At Glenstone, despite never seeing anything out of place, the experience feels completely natural.



Ceci Mestre is a sophomore in the College majoring in American Studies.


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