- The Washington Times - Friday, March 2, 2001

Pop quiz: What's ranked fourth on Travel Holiday magazine's list of the top 25 museums in the United States? What has been dubbed "one of the most fantastic museums anywhere in America" by CNN News? Whose grand opening is listed as one of humankind's "major events" by yes the Rotorua Museum of Art and History in New Zealand?

It's no contest. The American Visionary Art Museum (AVAM) in Baltimore is not just the biggest of about a dozen museums in the world devoted to so-called visionary art, it also is the only one in the United States.

And it is quickly becoming one of the best-known, though it opened just after Thanksgiving 1995 near the attractions in Baltimore's Inner Harbor. Visitors, from all over the world, number 50,000 a year and have included Grammy winner Tracy Chapman and actor Ed Norton. Donations come from such luminaries as "Mr. Spock," Leonard Nimoy.

But "visionary" art? What is it? It's the work of people who may be untrained and often are disabled, homeless, mentally retarded or jailed but whose spirit compels them toward a tangible expression of a vision.

Their works are highly personal and individualistic, not to say eccentric. They also often are startlingly original, often highly intricate and breathtakingly beautiful.

Take a look, for example, at the 55-foot-tall whirligig just outside the museum's entrance. The bright, festive, complicated wind-powered assemblage was commissioned five years ago from visionary artist and North Carolina farmer Vollis Simpson, now 82. Mr. Simpson means it to be a salute to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. One of the more amazing things about the contraption is that Mr. Simpson waived his commissioning fee and asked to be reimbursed only for for the cost of the metal with which he built it.

"He fell in love with what we were doing," says Baltimore philanthropist Rebecca Hoffberger, the museum's founder and still its guiding light.

Mrs. Hoffberger, 48, is a short, slightly plump, stylishly dressed woman with an open face and long, wild strawberry-blond hair who puts in 50 or 60 unsalaried hours a week at the museum but seems never to run out of energy.

"That's my contribution," she says of her time.

She got the idea for the museum in 1984, when she was teaching patients at Sinai Hospital's Department of Psychiatry in Baltimore the skills they would need to live on their own how to manage their money and prepare their food, for example.

"I just became really interested in having a museum that wouldn't show Little Johnny's artwork because he's mentally ill or crippled or blind or whatever," she told the arts journal Link.

"I had this idea of a museum that would show incredible stuff… .I wanted someplace where people have to go in and go, 'Oh, my God,' look and see the beauty and the insight, and then let go of the medical model."

Mrs. Hoffberger visited existing visionary art museums, particularly Jean Dubuffet's Collection de l'Art Brut in Lausanne, Switzerland. She also began a fund-raising campaign for her museum that drew entirely on private funds some of them through her husband, Leroy Hoffberger, a lawyer prominent in Baltimore cultural circles who sold his entire collection of German expressionist art to help pay for his wife's dream. The fund-raising campaign took six years and eventually netted about $7 million.

Mrs. Hoffberger submitted her idea to Baltimore City officials in 1989. They awarded her a wedge-shaped plot of land near the Inner Harbor along with a building that had been the home of the Baltimore Copper Paint Co.

To renovate the space, she called on architect Rebecca Swanston (whose projects have included the renovation of the concert hall at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore) and sculptor Alex Castro (who studied architecture at the University of Pennsylvania and has designed catalogs and exhibitions for numerous museums).

Mr. Castro, Mrs. Hoffberger says, had never even built a doghouse and didn't even have an architect's license. The result has won several awards; In fact, it is the only museum ever to have won the National Award for Excellence from the Urban Land Institute. That Washington-based nonprofit educational institution, made up largely of architects and urban planners, honors projects it believes exemplify superior design, economic success and high quality.

Mrs. Hoffberger proudly contrasts her museum to the Baltimore Museum of Art's new wing, which was finished at about the same time.

"We spent about half as much to do almost twice as much," she says.

• • •

Go through the entrance and up a slight ramp into the main area, which is dominated by an impressive spiral staircase designed by sculptor David Hess. Mr. Hess, according to Link, conceived of the building as a leviathan sucking in debris from the harbor, so he wove such unlikely items as branches, Styrofoam cups and paintbrushes all cast in bronze into the balustrade.

The central stairwell contains more complicated assemblages mobilelike structures of scrap metal, wire and Christmas lights that their creator, Emory Blagdon, called "healing machines." Mr. Blagdon, a Southern farmer, put them together in a barn over many years; he believed they generated electromagnetic fields with healing powers.

The "healing machines" are part of the museum's current exhibit, "Treasures of the Soul: Who Is Rich?" On view until Sept. 2, the show features artwork by people who, lacking in material possessions, are or were rich in spirit.

Also in this exhibit are figures made out of scrap metal found along the roadside by homeless artist Clyde Angel; large, cocoonlike sculptures by Judith Scott, a deaf woman with Down syndrome and kleptomaniac tendencies who steals her raw materials; and highly intricate 2-by-2-inch embroidered pictures created in jail by an artist named Raymond Materson, who worked them with thread he unraveled from his socks and with needles prison authorities allowed him to use.

Unlike most art museums, which devote considerable space to their permanent collections, AVAM displays only a small percentage from its permanent collection at a time about 80 out of more than 4,000 items in the Permanent Collection Gallery on the main floor. Almost all the rest of the museum is devoted to temporary exhibits with a central theme such as the current "Treasures of the Soul" on the first and second floors. These exhibits generally stay on view about a year.

Mrs. Hoffberger decides on the theme for each exhibit, though each one has a different guest curator. Because Mrs. Hoffberger feels the artists' backgrounds are important to the art they create, the exhibits often include extensive wall texts about them.

Mrs. Hoffberger planned the museum's first 11 exhibitions before the place even opened, getting her ideas for themes by looking at the collections of the other visionary art museums in the world and noting which themes tended to recur.

So far the museum has mounted six exhibits: "The Tree of Life"; "Wind in My Hair"; "The End Is Near," a show of apocalyptic art; "Love: Error and Eros"; "We Are Not Alone," which featured otherworldly beings such as space aliens, angels and devils; and the current "Treasures of the Soul."

As if all this weren't enough, visitors can step outside to the Sculpture Barn, a former whiskey storehouse next to the main building that is used to display oversize artworks, or can see the outdoor Wedding Chapel, a large churchlike structure by Ben Wilson made out of what seem to be several hundred intertwined tree branches.

Some might think professional artists would avoid such a museum. Mrs. Hoffberger says just the opposite is the case.

"We have an amazing relationship with trained artists. Some of our biggest champions have been trained artists," she says.

• • •

The way the museum is run is as unorthodox as the art inside. Members of the small paid staff frequently trade off responsibilities. AVAM boasts no guards or docents. Until recently, no membership was offered, and even now the membership is called simply the Fan Club.

The museum's main-floor gift shop stocks items more unusual than the standard T-shirts and postcards. You will find those, but visitors to "We Are Not Alone," for example, also could purchase alien creatures made out of bottle caps, glow-in-the-dark alien key chains and wind-up toy robots.

The Joy America Cafe, which boasts an impressive view of the Inner Harbor from its large windows and open-air balcony on the top floor, may be the only "mainstream" feature here. Managed by brothers Spike and Charlie Gjerde, who run several other successful restaurants in Baltimore, including Spike & Charlie's and Atlantic, it features a moderately priced Southwestern-based menu.

Rental coordinator Juliana Trotta says the museum is rented for private functions eight to 15 times a month, especially during spring and fall. New York artist Joe Coleman, whose paintings have appeared in some of the museum's exhibits, even got married there last year.

• • •

In addition to its regular exhibits, AVAM also sponsors a number of special events during the year, and they are just as unusual as the artwork housed in the museum.

They include a Saints and Sinners Mardi Gras ball with guests, usually about 1,800, dressed as saints, sinners and lost souls; a Goddess Sleepover for women; a free day for teachers on Martin Luther King's birthday; a Pet Parade on the Fourth of July; and an Art Car Show presented in conjunction with Artscape, a three-day downtown arts festival.

The biggest special event AVAM sponsors, however, is the Great Kinetic Sculpture Race, an all-terrain race of human-powered sculptures that takes place in and around the Inner Harbor and coincides with Baltimore's annual Waterfront Festival in late April. Mrs. Hoffberger got the idea from a race held in California. Baltimore is now the race's official East Coast venue.

Mrs. Hoffberger has big plans for the future. She plans to apprentice young people to decorate the concrete exterior of the main building with mosaics in the manner of Spanish artist Antonio Gaudi. The project will start later this year and take three years to complete.

• • •

Last month, Baltimore's Design Advisory Panel approved plans for an addition to the museum: the Jim Rouse Visionary Center, named after the well-known urban planner, whom Mrs. Hoffberger cites as an important influence on her and whose son Ted is the chairman of AVAM's board. Jim Rouse invested in people, Mrs. Hoffberger says, and believed in vision.

The center, which will be housed in a five-story warehouse just south of the current facilities, will include a "center for visionary thought and creative social responsibility," a type of public forum; a "Thou Art" creative center with space for classrooms and workshops; and a "visionary village" of large outdoor sculpture.

Construction, which is expected to cost around $8 million, is planned to begin at the end of the year.

On the outside of the American Visionary Art Museum's main building, large neon letters spell out LOVE. The work was made for the exhibit "Love: Error and Eros" but has been left there permanently.

That may be fitting. This is a place that helps people see things they might have overlooked, and love and persistence made it a reality.

WHAT: The American Visionary Art Museum

WHERE: 800 Key Highway, Baltimore

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday

ADMISSION: $6 adults; $4 seniors, students and children; children 4 and younger free

INFORMATION: 410/244-1900; www.avam.org


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