Go to Glenstone!
Emily and Mitchell Rales opened Glenstone, their private museum on the property of their Potomac, Maryland home, to the press on Friday. Well, opened to the rest of the press (and interestingly a number of communications professionals from peer museums) because Glenstone has been heavily covered and previewed throughout its five-year gestation.
Mitchell Rales seemed to relish the coming-out party aspect of the opening. He made reference in his opening remarks to his reputation as a ‘reclusive billionaire’ before punctuating them with the diffident comment, “Well, here I am.”
Rales is hardly the first very wealthy person — mostly men but not solely — to have faced a personal or professional crisis only to turn to art and the hope of creating a legacy through art. In Rales’s case, there is no origin to his fortune that needs to be laundered through art. His Danaher Corporation is an industrial conglomerate built through savvy deals that puts him in the category of exceptional investors.
If Rales doesn’t have skeletons, he did have a personal challenge. How to create a museum that would and can distinguish itself against other great private museums in the context of a rising art market. Rales’s origin story as a collector starts with a fiery explosion on a remote Russian airstrip that precipitated a mid-life crisis.
Actually, that’s not entirely true. Rales began collecting like most when he built a new home. He also started with Impressionists and Picasso. Over time, decorating gave way to acquiring trophies. Rales picked up one of those from François Pinault. That Jackson Pollock produced a substantial return when Rales sold it in 2013. The collector bought another, a Rothko, at auction in 2003 for $16.35m, a lot of money before the big rise in art prices in general and Rothko prices in particular.
Generally, Rales was not a regular, visible buyer at auction. He worked with Robert Mnuchin in the 1990s, as two brass-tacks deal-makers eager to take advantage of an art market in retreat, to buy a series of Matisse bronzes or then-undervalued Ab-Ex names like de Kooning and Kline.
After the near-death experience in Russia, Rales began to re-assess his life, his legacy and his art collecting. He began to work toward the idea of building a private museum. After Mnuchin, he worked with gallerists like Matthew Marks to begin acquiring living artists like Charles Ray and Brice Marden.
If Rales started out as a trophy hunter, it must have chafed against his ingrained habit of looking for value. Danaher isn’t a swashbuckler’s conglomerate. It is a collection of under-valued assets that Rales and his brother and partner identified and polished into gems. Equally, the journey Rales took to Glenstone necessitated finding a different way to collect. It also involved finding another partner. Emily Wei met Rales through the art world and their marriage is inextricable from the ambitions surrounding Glenstone.
Whether the turn from collecting trophies to commissioning pieces from a few artists whose work they could own in-depth is a result of the museum or their marriage is less interesting than whether the Raleses can succeed in creating a museum that captures late-20th and early-21st Century art history though the best artists and their art.
The theme of the new Glenstone, which literally begins on a path beyond the border of the old Glenstone museum (now a gallery in the bigger complex), is harmony between nature, architecture and art. Throughout the press preview, tours were accompanied by representatives of Glenstone’s three estates, a curator, an architect and a landscape designer. Together they kept up a lively commentary on servicing the particular needs of the museums many artists and satisfying their peculiar interests.The unity of the disciplines is evident in the large building that appears to burst through the landscape as a series of “pavilions.” Each pavilion is meant to give one of the museum’s featured artists pride of place. The building opens with highly specific presentations of On Kawara, Brice Marden, Martin Puryear, Robert Gober, Pipilotti Ris, Charles Ray, Roni Horn and Cy Twombly.
And though the concept moves beyond trophies it still embraces trophy works in a different way. On Kawara’s three date paintings from the Apollo moon landing are given their own dedicated gallery. Michael Heizer’s Collapse (1967/2016) is permanently installed in an outdoor room. It’s massive size and depth reverberates from its permanent display. Perhaps less successful is Brice Marden’s Moss Sutra with the Seasons a commissioned work that took five years to execute and stretches over 39 feet. Charles Ray gets his own gallery to curate as he sees fit.
This turn toward artists doesn’t mean the other trophies have been cashiered. Glenstone has its own version of MoMA’s ‘narrative’ of Contemporary art. One large gallery leads the visitor through tightly curated rooms that tell a more balanced and inclusive story of postwar art. The opening show begins with a sit-up-and-notice display of three Ruth Asawa works in the same room as Jackson Pollock, Clyford Still and Franz Kline; in the next room, Rothko, Giacometti, de Kooning and Calder face off before giving way to Gutai works which, in turn, lead into an alcove of Brazilian Modernists. The only remarkable thing about this progression is how natural and obvious it seems.
Other juxtapositions are part of the fun. In Glenstone’s narrative, Jasper Johns’s Flag on an Orange Field II is cheek-by-jowl with Faith Ringgold’s Black Light Series #10: Flag for the Moon: Die Nigger. Two works of art dependent upon the American flag but employed for diametrical ends.
The exhibition continues through a range of different artists, often using works of art that are representative of the artist but less obviously trophies. The survey culminates in a stunningly topical David Hammons work, How Ya Like Me Now?, depicting Jesse Jackson with blonde hair and mustache.
Here is where we get to heart of Glenstone’s ambition. The Raleses are hoping to create an institution that is fully representative of its time. Although Mitchell Rales is 62 and Emily Rales only 42, they’ve made plans for the collection to continue buying work by any of the artists Glenstone decides to commit to during their lifetimes. They’ve worked it out and the collection could eventually span 150 years of creative work.
That’s a big statement.
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