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Glenstone: The Art of Cultivation

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As a Baltimore city-dweller, what disrupted my sense of normalcy upon my first visit to Glenstone was not the art. Instead, I was jarred by the impact of a meadow, expansive and diverse in vegetation, buzzing and jumping and rustling with wildlife, all peacefully illuminated below the wide, cloudy sky.

Removed from the city—which often speaks its language in construction cones and traffic lights, helicopters and sirens, layers of commerce past and present—I did not just see an alternative way of life but felt it, like an instinct suddenly activated. Watching a white, hairy caterpillar going about its business on a tree, I wondered, with a twinge of estrangement: When was the last time I’d seen such a thing? Or had the time and space to do so?

Glenstone is an art museum in Potomac, Maryland, that tends to its outdoor environments as much as the indoor ones that house much of the art. The major difference between visiting Glenstone’s grounds and hiking in a natural environment like the Blue Ridge Mountains is that the museum’s 350-acre campus is cultivated, even though the land seems to be utterly wild.

The grounds are man-shaped, designed by landscape architects Peter Walker and Partners, and Glenstone encourages visitors to think of the landscape through the lens we usually reserve for inside a museum. Glenstone’s largest indoor exhibition space, a series of linked pavilions designed by Thomas Phifer and Partners, devotes an entire room (the only one with a window looking out) to contemplate what takes place outside the walls rather than within.

Trevor Garbow, Glenstone’s Deputy Landscape Superintendent, emphasizes the tremendous effort of nurturing native plants while keeping invasive species, such as Japanese stiltgrass, at bay. Since Glenstone began cultivating the land twelve years ago, a huge diversity of native plants has thrived: little bluestem, purple top euphorbia, rattlesnake master, milkweed, and mintweed, to name a few. A host of new insects soon followed, attracted to a feeding and nesting ground that had previously been a barren monoculture.

 

Then came the smaller animals. Then the larger. Now this landscape is home to owls, wild turkey, hawks, coyotes, foxes, bears, and streams full of fish, all living alongside outdoor sculptures by artists like Félix González-Torres, Andy Goldsworthy, Michael Heizer, Richard Serra, and Jeff Koons. A tour guide on a nature walk spoke of a heron that has developed a special relationship with a 45-foot Ellsworth Kelly sculpture, as if they are engaged in ongoing conversation.

The breadth of this ecological diversity results from the sustainable, organic practices Glenstone employs. Without synthetic products like fertilizers or bug sprays, nature reigns, prioritized in a way rarely practiced by the average homeowner. Glenstone hopes to serve as a model and educator in that regard, opening people’s minds to the possibility that a green lawn is not the ultimate beauty standard. That clover and dandelion have a place in the ecosystem too. That most property owners can adopt these sustainability practices, ditch the poison, support local nurseries, buy native plants, and create an environment as aesthetically pleasing as Glenstone’s meadow.

Paul Tukey, Director of Environmental Stewardship at Glenstone, speaks of sustainability in terms of regeneration and tries to think like nature would. By reversing the course of erosion and pollution, he and the grounds team restored miles of streams and tributaries. Fish populations rebounded in response. Glenstone is actively involved in reversing human-caused harm on the land- scape.

More than 90 percent of the land at Glenstone is pervious, meaning water can flow through the earth in a natural way that roofs, patios, driveways, swimming pools, sidewalks, streets, and parking lots do not permit. Tukey hopes visitors leave Glenstone inspired to think not only about art, but about buildings, natural light, and landscape in a different way than when they arrived.

The museum’s main mission is to create “a place that seamlessly integrates art, architecture, and nature into a serene and contemplative environment.” And though that list puts art at the forefront, visitors actually experience the environmental elements in reverse: first driving along a tree-lined road; then greeted by a minimalist, modern visitor center prefacing the rest of the campus’s beautiful, thoughtfully designed architecture. Then, a first peek at Jeff Koons’s Split-Rocker, a mammoth living sculpture of flowers in the loose shape of a rocking horse’s head, cresting over the horizon of a meadow so lush that even a megastar like Koons seems moderated.

 

There is admittedly something satisfying about these male sculptors working at such large scale being proportioned back down to human size by nature. But inside the Pavilions, Colombian sculptor Doris Salcedo is given the most space. The scale of the galleries housing Salcedo’s work feels more poignant because her work is concerned with the violent absence or erasure of people. The first of three rooms is large enough to dwarf the three weathered tables it contains. The wooden tables seem the product of neglect until, upon closer inspection, visitors realize that the tables are not weathered—they have been shattered into splinters and painstakingly reassembled, an impossible task to complete, standing as a metaphor for how women must persevere in the aftermath of rape.

This juxtaposition of grave violence, lively landscape, and tranquil architecture might seem harsh, but it demonstrates Glenstone’s commitment to its mission of contemplation and proves that, as an institution, it aims to provide not an escape from the real world but an environment in which to seriously consider some of our most pressing issues.

Unlike most museum guards, the guides at Glenstone are trained to interact, ask questions, offer personal insight, or give you space depending upon the experience you seek. Gallery walls are devoid of large blocks of text; Glenstone instead offers a dialectic environment, whether visitors choose to have that dialogue with the stewards or simply with the art on its own terms.

Glenstone collects art in the same way visitors experience and interact with the art—slowly. By focusing on a few artists and giving their work plentiful space in which to live, visitors are encouraged to spend more time with the art than they might otherwise be inclined. In one of the Pavilion rooms, a single seven-foot figurative sculpture looms large, black ceramic hands positioned on the hips above a massive raffia skirt, part of Simone Leigh’s Village Series.

The formidable head of the figure is face-less; the viewer stares into a void within the center of a whirlpool garland. The Baltimore Museum of Art places a Leigh sculpture from the same series across from Edgar Degas’ Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen, creating direct dialogue between a gulf of time and culture; Glenstone provides Leigh with her own private room, prompting visitors to circle the sculpture and consider its various dimensions, an act akin to a walking meditation. Unlike a traditional museum, Glenstone works collaboratively with each artist throughout their ongoing relationship— and the artists choose where to place their art within the generous space provided.

 

According to Nora Cafritz, Glenstone’s Senior Director of Collections, the perfect environment for art may not exist. However, Glenstone strives to make the environment a part of the artist’s overall process of working and removes some of the barriers artists might run into at other, more traditional institutions. For example, Heizer’s sculpture Collapse was conceived in 1967: fifteen enormous steel beams that don’t quite fit into a box within the earth, evoking thoughts of containment and chaos, arrangement and accident. Though Collapse existed in model form, it was not until 2016, when Glenstone commissioned the piece, that Heizer found a place to actualize it in the right size, using the right material.

While one team cultivates the outdoor landscape, Cafritz and her team are focused on cultivating a different sort of relationship. She considers Glenstone’s responsibilities to the artists, as well as how the institution can best serve as a steward for the art. These responsibilities include documentation and file keeping for how to preserve the objects, many of which are subjected to outdoor elements. The end goal is to ensure the artists and the art remain accessible to audiences beyond a single person’s lifetime—strikingly similar to the goals of responsible stewardship for the planet. Whether we think of cultivation in terms of landscape, architecture, or art, the act is about intention, time, and growth.

Cultivation requires a significant investment of resources and labor. It also necessitates working alongside the unknowable and accepting the unpredictability of the outcome. But when we invest with purpose and an eye toward the long-view—in art, architecture, or landscape—actualizing that vision becomes all the more rewarding, becomes the making of a legacy.

 

This story is from Issue 14: Environment, available here.

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