The Glenstone museum and grounds owned by Mitchell Rales. (Scott Frances/OTTO )
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.
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.
A remarkable collection
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 400 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.
To achieve that, though, Rales, who co-founded the highly profitable Danaher Corp., wants something that his $3 billion in net worth cannot buy: a connection to the public sewer system.
Glenstone is in an area of Montgomery where, to help control growth, sewers are generally banned; instead, septic systems are used. The county planning board voted down Rales’s request in late May, citing environmental concerns and the risk of setting a precedent that could dismantle the sewer ban throughout the slow-growth area. Local environmental groups and some neighbors are opposed, noting that, at 3,000 feet, the sewer line would be one of the longest ever approved by the county and would run across an environmentally vulnerable stream.
“When we start allowing billionaires. . . to circumvent the law and the process to buy their way into what they want, I think there is a problem,” said Caroline Taylor of the Montgomery Countryside Alliance.
The planning board’s decision does not bind the County Council, which will begin a review of the issue Thursday and could vote later this month. The administration of County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) has endorsed Rales’s proposal. Ultimately, it will have to be approved by the state Department of the Environment.
As Rales has sought the sewer line, the reclusive billionaire has begun to introduce himself to the community. In addition to last fall’s party for the school superintendent, Rales held several “meet and greets” at Glenstone with 650 neighbors. Leggett has visited; so has Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D).