Art Collector Mitchell Rales's Grand Design Hangs Up Over Sewer Issue

by Miranda S. Spivak
The Washington Post
July 9, 2012

Read the full article at The Washington Post

Most of the guests knew each other. It was the host who was a mystery.

He was wealthy. That much they knew. His 200-acre Potomac estate, called Glenstone, was surrounded by a long wood fence along Glen Road. Security officers checked IDs at the gate against a list that included many of the important figures in Montgomery County: members of the County Council and the school board, business leaders.

The Montgomery County Council and the Maryland environment department must decide if Potomac billionaire Mitchell Rales will be allowed a sewer connection.

Once inside a gleaming white gallery, the guests stood in small groups, sipping wine and sparkling water, admiring what is widely viewed as one of the most extraordinary modern art collections in private hands.

Many had never before met their host, Mitchell Rales, who threw the party last September to honor Montgomery County’s new public school superintendent, Joshua P. Starr, a man he did not know. After Rales introduced himself and the superintendent, he spoke of plans to make his multimillion-dollar modern art collection more accessible to the county’s students.

The full scope of his ambitions for Glenstone did not become clear until recently, when the obsessively secretive billionaire sent an e-mail to many of those who attended the party. In it, he revealed his grand vision for Glenstone, which would include a new museum that would rival the size of the East Building of the National Gallery of Art.

But there was an obstacle in his way. Glenstone is seeking a hookup to the county’s sewer system.

And now he needed something from them.

“Please help,” the e-mail began.

Washington may be home to some of the country’s best museums, but there is nothing in the region quite like Glenstone.

Visitors drive down a quarter-mile private road past the outdoor sculptures and the man-made pond toward a modernist building that is itself a work of art.

Inside the 25,000-square-foot gallery is a remarkable art collection that includes works by Calder, Matisse and Rothko. Rusty Powell, director of the National Gallery of Art, called it “one of the world’s most important” collections of the post-World War II era. Kerry Brougher, chief curator of the Hirshhorn Museum, said Glenstone is a “world-class destination.”

And yet it is “simply the best-kept secret in the Washington area,” said Eliot Pfanstiehl, head of Strathmore, the arts center in North Bethesda.

But only a small percentage of the collection assembled by Rales — No. 117 on the Forbes 100 list of wealthiest Americans and one of Art News’s top collectors in the world — can be viewed. There is no fee to enter the gallery, but it is open only on Thursdays and Fridays, by appointment, and for groups no larger than 20. Since Glenstone opened to the public in 2006, only 10,000 people have visited. Potential visitors must complete an online form that asks if they are journalists or connected to “the blogging community.” Cameras and note-taking are forbidden.

Now, Rales and his wife, Emily Wei Rales, Glenstone’s former curator, say they want more visitors to see their growing collection. They have decided to build another gallery, which at 125,000 square feet would dwarf Glenstone’s current exhibition space. If all goes as they plan, Glenstone, which is operated by the Glenstone Foundation, would join the Barnes in Philadelphia, the Phillips in Washington and the Frick in New York among the world’s premier privately owned galleries.