A search for museums in Maryland will lead to a surprising discovery. You can find an “oasis of art” in suburbia. Glenstone Museum is located in affluent Montgomery County, Maryland. It marries landscape architecture, outdoor sculpture, and gallery art. Glenstone Museum is a pastoral “exburb” escape for Washingtonians. Yet is located only 16 miles from the nation’s capital. The private Glenstone museum is the creation of Mitchell and Emily Wei Rales.
“A private art Xanadu”New York Times
The definition of Xanadu is “an idealized place of great or idyllic magnificence and beauty.” NYT nailed it. Glenstone ranks among the large private art museums scattered around the country. Its cultural cousins include Los Angeles’ Broad Museum and Marciano Art Foundation.
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While I could rave about over-the-top (my head) outdoor sculpture, such as Jeff Koons’ humongous Split Rocker, I am most enthralled by Glenstone’s landscape design. Among museums in Maryland, it is the most fanciful.
My mind summons multiple words. Sprawling. Expansive. Boundless.
I dreamt all last night about Glenstone. Staring down a long walkway into the woods, I was always in pursuit (but not reaching) the destination. I could feel an imaginary rope pulling be up or down the hill yet I couldn’t reach it. Waking up, I marveled how my mind tried to work out my impression of wandering the grounds while I slept. Racing to book another timed ticket to revisit Glenstone, I was disappointed to see not one appointment available for the next two and half months.
Thomas Phifer and Partners, the architect for the expanded Glenstone Museum, received the 2020 national Architecture Award—the architecture profession’s highest national recognition—for the expanded Glenstone Museum and its Pavilions building.
Given by the American Institute of Architects (AIA), the juried award celebrates the best contemporary architecture and highlights the many ways buildings and spaces can improve lives.
Glenstone Museum was also selected as Best in Competition by the jury of the New York Chapter of AIA for the 2020 AIA NY Design Awards. The AIA NY award recognizes the design collaboration of Thomas Phifer and Partners and PWP Landscape Architecture.
The nine-member national AIA jury singled out for praise Glenstone for the:
“elegant materiality of the Pavilions and the integration of the exterior within the site and the landscape.”AIA
This is high praise for museums in Maryland. Glenstone is ranked #7 on Trip Advisor’s 10 Best Museums in Maryland.
Everything is on a big scale when you roam the grounds of Glenstone. This is not a small confined urban space like typical museums in Maryland or Washington DC.
It is a sprawling manor comprising nearly 300 acres of pasture, hilly terrain, and woodland. Nature is the backdrop for its stunning modern and contemporary sculpture.
“The landscape includes paths, trails, streams, meadows, forests and outdoor sculptures throughout the grounds.”Glenstone Museum
This is not to say that the designers didn’t manufacture nature. Clearly there are elements which are not native but created, such as a meandering rock-strewn creek bed. But the groves of trees recall a less busy time when this property was farmland.
Split-Rocker, a massive sculpture covered in live grasses and flowers dominates the grounds. Designed by Jeff Koons, the sculpture is comprised of stainless steel, soil, geotextile fabric, internal irrigation system, and live flowering plants. The sculpture measures 37 x 39 x 36 feet.
“Even if it were not alive, the sculpture known as ‘Split-Rocker’ would be a mind-blowing thing.”Adrian Higgins
2021 high school graduates pose in front of Green Head. Visitors snap selfies. Residents in nearby suburban tract homes can theoretically spy on the sculpture with a pair of binoculars. Split-Rocker is a magnet pulling you up the hill to examine.
I stand close enough to the sculpture to examine the individual holes where the flowers and grass peek out. Meticulous in detail, Split-Rocker is Obessive Compulsive Outdoor Sculpture on the Grand Scale.
This gargantuan outdoor sculpture draws comparison to a litany of objects from the real works—spider, children’s playground gym . . . moon home. But I ponder artist Tony Smith’s name for his art: “Smug.”
Clearly, this object is “contentedly confident” of its correctness on this slipe. I would accede its superiority to dominate. This sculpture deserves a long visit as there are so many different angles to view the woods in the perimeter.
My daughter-in-law Carla photographs me inside the Ray installation. This immersive art draws me into what appears a small building. But the skinny circular path burrows deeper into the dark corridor then spills out into an open expanse. I suspect the artist’s mission is to reveal how we must travel uncertain spaces of uncertain lengths to reach a clearing or understanding.
My inclination is to lie down in the clearing and stare at the sky above. It opens up wide and invites reverie.
FOREST (for a thousand years …)
Outdoor sculpture does not necessarily have to be a physical object. Glenstone also offers an audible art experience outdoors. Created by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, it is called FOREST (for a thousand years…). The 2012 audio installation includes 22 loud speakers mounted in a forest setting. There are amplifiers, with a playback computer. The duration is a 28-minute loop.
I hear FOREST even before I see it as guns fire. We are seemingly under attack while walking through a bucolic scene. Hurrying down the hill, we round the corner to begin a climb back up to the setting. Tree trunks are arranged in a circle where we might sit. It is a serene spot in the forest. Classical music now plays. I struggle to unite the concept of a sculpture built through sounds yet invisible to the naked eye.
Here are some of the whimsical sculptures that I saw on my visit in May:
Although I highlight various artists’ works currently on display at Glenstone, I believe its landscaping – what I dub the Nature Exhibit – is its most prized possession. Two times, I witnessed a blue jay fluttering on the branch of a tree or flying off towards the woods. This bird is a symbol of communication, intelligence, and curiosity. All visitors should approach Glenstone Museum as a blue jay.
Notably, Glenstone embraces organic landscaping. Its reforestation is exemplary. “We planted trees, understory vegetation and groundcover flora as part of our reforestation efforts. From 2013−2018, we planted more than 7,000 trees, in addition to thousands of shrubs, annual and perennial grasses, and flowers. We plant only native, regionally appropriate species, which require the fewest resources to maintain and provide appropriate food and habitat for local fauna.”
Glenstone Museum is 15 years old. It opened in 2006. There was one 9,000-square-foot gallery building and a three-acre pond. Oversized sculptures drew visitors outdoors.
I was lucky enough to visit Glenstone years ago before the expansion. My memory is a wonderous place due to its embrace of nature as a setting for Art. The physicality of walking large distances to survey Art Outdoors left a deep impression. At that time, Glenstone offered walking tours. So the guide (who was an artist) provided welcomed commentary.
But I love the new Glenstone. To quote Emily Rales, Director and Co-Founder of Glenstone Museum, its design is extraordinary: “Every element of the design, from the smallest detail to the way in which the building is sited so that it appears to rise out of the land, contributes to providing a seamless experience of architecture, art and nature for our visitors.”
The Woodland Trail zig zags and curves around the Glenstone Museum campus. “The Woodland Trail, if explored in its entirety, covers over one mile of varying surfaces with a total elevation change of 100 feet,” according to the Glenstone brochure given out to guests at the Arrival Hall. (Insider Note: The trail is a natural, rugged environment so you should wear good walk shoes. In case of inclement weather, the path could be slippery.)
Sadly, my Glenstone visit lasts only 90 minutes as I could only snare a late afternoon timed ticket. I resolve to get a 10 am timed ticket to visit in August. Glenstone deserves a lengthy visit where I can meander the property to wander and wonder.
Admission is free to Glenstone Museum, which is located in Montgomery County, Maryland. This is a suburb adjacent to Washington DC. You must reserve a timed ticket. Visit www.Glenstone.org to check the next date available.
If searching for other museums in Maryland, I highly recommend a visit to Annmarie Sculpture Gardens. You can also view post-World War II sculptures at the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden. It is located on the National Mall in Washington D.C.
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