We tour Thomas Phifer’s completed Glenstone Museum in Potomac

glensonte approach to the pavilions
The new Glenstone Museum by Thomas Phifer is now completed.
(Image credit: Iwan Baan)

Cast among the McMansions of Potomac, Maryland – an affluent suburb of Washington DC – Glenstone is an improbable gem, a sprawling estate of 230 acres owned by art collector Mitchell Rales and his wife Emily. In 2006, the couple opened the grounds to visitors on an appointment-only basis, with the main attraction a modest gallery designed by the late Charles Gwathmey. As the Raleses added to their extensive holdings of contemporary and modern paintings and sculpture, their modest proto-museum was swiftly outgrown, and so they began casting around for ways to expand.

They undertook a worldwide search. ‘We looked at fifty museums', says Emily Rales, a trained art historian and curator. Finding themselves particularly inspired by Denmark’s Louisiana Museum and the Menil Collection in Houston, the Raleses proceeded to commission a new, $200-million facility from New York-based architect Thomas Phifer. The result, opening next month, is an extraordinary experiment in landscape, architecture and art, with almost 14,000 sq m of exhibition space set around a serene central courtyard.

architecture surrounded by trees and grass

Art, landscape and architecture merge through a series of pavilions.

(Image credit: Iwan Baan)

‘We wanted to create an experience that was completely immersive', says Phifer, ‘so that when you see the art, you just go weak at the knees'. The designer achieved this effect through the use of highway-grade concrete slabs stacked into a series of vertical blockhouses, each containing a separate gallery featuring the work of artists as varied as Jackson Pollock, Lygia Pape and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Opting for a material palette that was ‘not too precious', Phifer was still able to give the surface a little life by allowing natural patinas to form on each individual slab, achieving a visual pattern the architect likens to ‘a mosaic'.     

Complemented by lushly-planted hills and pathways from landscape firm Peter Walker and Partners, the new Glenstone is part of an emerging vanguard of privately-held museums for big-name collectors no longer content to gaze at their work in contemplative solitude. What this trend augurs for the future of the artworld is anyone’s guess – though Glenstone’s patron sees his own project as a bellwether that’s already proven its potential, with more to come. ‘This isn’t the beginning, and it’s not the end', says Mitchell Rales. ‘We’re somewhere in the middle'.

glenstone museum aerial

The complex is located a short drive from Washington DC in the suburb of Potomac.

(Image credit: PWP)

glenstone by thomas phifer

Phifer's design is set around a serene central courtyard, green spaces and a water feature.

(Image credit: Iwan Baan)

glenstone museum garden art

Art can be seen both inside and outside the building. Pictured here, a piece by Tony Smith.

(Image credit: Iwan Baan)

glenstone interior

Large openings keep the visitor visually connected to the surrounding greenery. Pictured here, circulation space and an art piece by Martin Puryear.

(Image credit: Ron Amstutz)

glenstone interior gallery

The new Glenstone's galleries offer a variety of work from the private collectors' treasure trove, such as this piece by Lygia Pape.

(Image credit: Ron Amstutz)

glenstone gallery thomas phifer

Exhibits include art by American sculptor Charles Ray.

(Image credit: Ron Amstutz)

glenstone interior thomas phifer

(Image credit: Ron Amstutz)


For more information visit the website of Thomas Phifer and Partners