Installation view Tacita Dean, "The Montafon Letter, 2017; When first I raised the tempest" (2016); and "Sunset," (2015) chalk on blackboard, dimensions variable at the Glenstone museum (© Tacita Dean, photo: Ron Amstutz courtesy the artist, Frith Street Gallery, London and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York / Paris)

Since Glenstone’s opening in 2006, its billionaire founders Mitchell and Emily Rales have promised their visitors a contemplative experience of their modern and contemporary art collection with minimal disruption. That means, among other things, low crowd density. While many museums have adopted timed reservation policies as a necessity during the pandemic, Glenstone, which offers free admission, has been doing the same for years. At the time of this writing, reservations are booked through February. Courting foot traffic, it would seem, has not been necessary to fill visitation slots.

The Potomac, Maryland museum comprises two gallery buildings tucked into 230 acres of rolling hills and pathways interspersed with several outdoor sculptures and installations. Also on the grounds are two dining areas and the elegant Rales residence overlooking the campus. Visitors must pass through an arrival hall and cut through a meadow before experiencing the collection, as if to cleanse themselves of the world beyond the museum. There is not a single square inch of Glenstone property that does not appear meticulously considered, down to the sleek fire extinguisher wall compartments. Indoor photography is forbidden. 

Water Court at the Pavilions (photo by Iwan Baan, courtesy Glenstone museum)

Equally critical to Glenstone’s carefully designed visitor experience as a retreat from the outside world is the absence of wall text in its galleries, save for the essentials (artist, title, date, medium). A Glenstone brochure announces that the galleries “display minimal didactic wall texts and encourage you to generate your own interpretations about the works you encounter.” Grey-clad guides are on hand to answer questions, but priority is given to the viewer’s ostensibly unmediated engagement with the artwork over explicit contextualization. The Washington Post described Glenstone in 2018 as “an escape from it all” — not just from the bustle of everyday life, but from time and history, too.

While Glenstone’s commitment to aesthetics over all else is rather pronounced, it is not radical. The idea of the museum as a retreat from life where art is frozen in time is a part of a Western museum tradition, as Carol Duncan explained in her book Civilizing Rituals. The rise of public art museums in Europe in the 18th century coincided with a revolution in aesthetic theory, and in the early 20th century, the United States in particular saw a growth in aesthetically oriented museums. In 1918, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts published Benjamin Ives Gilman’s Museum Ideals of Purpose and Method, which insisted that art should be appreciated above all for its beauty. When the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC first opened in 1941, it embraced the “aesthetic hang,” minimizing visual noise between the widely spaced collection items. Although the NGA has relaxed this policy over the years, wall text is still used sparingly. 

Far from revolutionary, Glenstone just dresses up entrenched, semi-religious attitudes toward art with a hyper-modern flair. And regardless of a museum’s claim to facilitate unimpeded interpretations, no artwork is ever truly decontextualized — only recontextualized within an institutional agenda. There is always some master narrative. The installation that filled the new galleries after Glenstone’s massive 2018 expansion demonstrated the breadth of the collection, which included some surprises such as a strong representation of Gutai art, but mostly reflected the Western, post-war, art-market-approved history affirmed by textbooks: Duchamp, Pollock, Warhol, and so on. The familiar story was there; it just wasn’t spelled out. Especially in cases like this, curatorial text is important not simply to express the institution’s point of view, but also to acknowledge, if indirectly, that such a perspective irrevocably exists. 

The sense of urgency that has come with the many crises human beings now face makes the prospect of retreating from reality seem desirable to some and irresponsible to others. But fewer people are under the illusion that museums can ever be neutral, which makes Glenstone’s attempt at minimal intervention appear contrived. In my community of artists and art historians, I’ve encountered admonishment of Glenstone’s reluctance to clearly contextualize its collection items. I’ve shared my own criticisms of the institution’s insistence on “slow looking” in light of its spectacular display of wealth and scale, a spectacle which actually hindered my ability to focus on the art in past visits.

Recent rotations in Glenstone’s displays suggest small steps toward a more forthright and transparent approach toward active audience engagement. Several photographs in the recently mounted Jeff Wall retrospective are accompanied by QR codes that, when scanned by a smartphone, explain the art-historical inspirations for Wall’s compositions. An Arthur Jafa exhibition of sculptures and photographs lit by the glow of his film akingdoncomethas (2018) is introduced with a modest wall text providing background on the artist’s practice of collecting and remixing images related to the pain and joy of Black life. Compared to the blue-chip laundry list of the previous exhibition, these installations present a more openly selective slice of contemporary art with valuable, if still minimal, information to ground the visitor’s engagement with the work. 

Arthur Jafa, “akingdoncomethas” (2018) video (color, sound) (© Arthur Jafa, courtesy the Artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels)

People need a source of restoration, and museums are well-positioned to fill that role. But restoration should not mean escape, and in any case, art can only ever provide a marginal retreat from the real world. Art is always connected with life, and no matter how stripped down, every museum display tells a story. Glenstone’s ambition to empower visitors with ownership of their museum experience is admirable, but time will tell if this still-young institution more fully embraces the importance of education and transparency in making that happen.

Maura Callahan is a Baltimore-based writer, former alternatively weekly newspaper editor, and a current graduate student of contemporary art history at the University of Maryland, College Park. She has...