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Until now, Glenstone, a private art foundation buried in rolling Maryland riding country, has mostly attracted local visitors. It’s not that it’s so hard to get to, a 40-minute taxi ride from Washington DC’s Union station. But its owners, Mitchell and Emily Rales, are billionaire art collectors who’ve never exactly courted international attention. Even the name of their foundation doesn’t point their way. (It’s an amalgam of Glen Road, where the property begins, and the carderock stone, which is found locally.)
But on October 4, the results of a five-year expansion will be revealed, including a new 204,000 sq ft building on an estate that now totals 230 acres and is dotted with sculptures by heavyweight artists such as Richard Serra and Ellsworth Kelly. The Rales can hide away no longer.
“I never thought I’d do another interview,” says Mitch, a 62-year-old industrialist, who greets me warmly by a striking Lawrence Weiner wallwork at the entrance of the new building. He has tried to avoid the media since Forbes magazine described him and his brother Steven as “Raiders in Short Pants” in 1985, at the time of their first business breakthrough.
“But we want people to come now, so here we are!” He and Emily anticipate 100,000 visitors a year, whose first glimpse of Glenstone’s art will be Jeff Koons’ “Split-Rocker”, a 37-ft-rocking-horse head festooned with 25,000 flowering plants, presiding over the parkland.
If private art foundations and sculpture parks seem plentiful these days (not-for-profit foundation status gives some interesting tax benefits), Glenstone stands out from the crowd in scale and ambition. Over the years, the Rales have amassed a remarkable collection of around 1,300 postwar and contemporary art works. An exhibition covering 50 years of Louise Bourgeois’ output currently showing in the old gallery space comes entirely from their holding. “They have a Bourgeois collection to rival MoMA’s,” says Jerry Gorovoy, director of the Easton Foundation that oversees the Louise Bourgeois legacy.
A walk through the opening exhibition in the new building gives a further indication of just what’s in their ownership. In the first room alone is Mark Rothko’s stately “No. 9 (White and black on Wine)” from 1958, Willem de Kooning’s “January 1st” (1956) and Jackson Pollock’s “No. 1” (1952), although the inclusion of three hanging Ruth Asawa sculptures in iron mesh (more than holding their own among this macho greatness) suggests that the Rales are not just swayed by value and status.
“You’re going to see a Jo Baer painting in the next room,” agrees Mitch, “and I think that it’s one of the most beautiful things we own, even though it’s a fraction of what the Warhol would cost. The market doesn’t always tell you what’s best.”
Sited with some subtlety in the landscape (a 100-year-old sycamore tree had to be moved), the new building is a series of 11 pavilions linked by elegant glass corridors and clustered around a lily-strewn water garden. Architect Thomas Phifer has drawn his inspiration from Monet’s garden at Giverny, while the way visitors enter at the building’s uppermost point and drop down to its watery centre pays homage to the work of the Italian 20th-century architect Carlo Scarpa.
The walls are made of 25,000 grey pre-cast concrete blocks. “The materials here are not luxury,” Mitch says. “We’re trying to create a different kind of experience. Cy Twombly gave us a lot of advice before he passed away. He said, ‘Don’t make it too chic’.” Plans of the building were pinned up in the artist’s Lexington studio when he died in 2011.
Twombly also curated the standalone room in which five of his sculptures — one for each decade from 1951 to 1991 — are shown. It is one of eight spaces dedicated to single artists. On Kawara allowed the Rales to have an exceptional suite of his paintings, the “Moon Landing” Series, and then gave them the dimensions — 20x20x40 ft — of the room in which it should be installed. Robert Gober directed eight painters over three months to create the woodland landscape on the walls of his space, and specified its theatrical lighting. Michael Heizer requested one that was open to the sky and has filled it with a work, “Collapse”, that’s like a pile of pick-up sticks, though scaled up and in steel.
Mitch started to buy art, and in particular Abstract Expressionism, in the early 1990s, initially to put on the walls of a new house. “I was ahead of the market, but first and foremost I was buying what I loved,” he says. Meeting the art historian Emily Wei in 2005 changed that course. “She’s taken me down paths I never thought I’d tread,” he says, referring to recent acquisitions of works by the psychedelic Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist and Icelandic performance and video artist Ragnar Kjartansson.
The collection has also absorbed important work from Brazilians Lygia Pape and Mira Schendel and 20th-century Japanese greats, including Kazuo Shiraga and Atsuko Tanaka. Meanwhile, in the huge basement store, which is modelled on that of Andreas Gursky — “We visited around 100 museums, foundations and studios while planning the expansion,” explains Emily — there are too many treasures to mention. As we enter, Mitch heads straight past a vitrine containing a complete set of Bruce Nauman bronze hand sculptures towards a rack holding a work by Dieter Roth, made of ugly loops of rubber piping and packing tape. “Roth changes the way you think about art,” he says. “It’s not always about aesthetic pleasure.”
The couple married in 2008 and Emily is now the director and curator at Glenstone. (She had previously held positions at Chinese antiquities gallery J. Lally and contemporary galleries including Barbara Gladstone.) “We have rules,” she says of their buying. These include prioritising work that is challenging and disruptive, and that both of them have to love it. “It can’t be economically suicidal,” she adds. “And we only buy artists after they’ve been showing for 15 years.” Wade Guyton, who makes “accidental” artworks with computers, scanners and ink-jet printers, has recently been added to the collection in accordance with these guidelines.
A full look around Glenstone — and it would be a shame to miss the carefully curated grove of copper beeches, or the 29 honey locust trees — could take at least four hours, or even a day. “That’s why we put in a second café,” says Mitch. The food at both stopping points is farm-to-table; the meat comes from the organic farm “about 50 minutes from here” run by Mitch’s son by his first marriage.
The family, however, will not inherit the foundation. It is set up as a museum to carry on long after the Rales have gone. “My business has provided the engine for what we’re doing here,” says Mitch. “But all these businesses I’m running, one day they’ll have diminished or disappeared. Glenstone, though, won’t lose its way. People might not remember the founders, or the architects. But they will remember the artists. The art will endure.”
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