One woman's dream to take shape as first U.S. museum for visionary art

November 26, 1993|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

Rebecca's dream is finally coming true.

In a private ceremony at 11 a.m. Sunday, ground will be broken near the Inner Harbor for the American Visionary Art Museum, the longtime vision of Baltimorean Rebecca Hoffberger. And miracle of miracles, it's going to be less expensive to build than she thought.

Ms. Hoffberger, 41, who has been striving to bring a visionary or "outsider" art museum to Baltimore for eight years, was handed a wonderful surprise recently when construction bids came in. "We expected the costs to be about $6.25 million, and the low bid was about a million under that," she says. "We're delighted that the apparent low bidder is J. Vinton Schafer and Sons, the same firm that did the renovation of the Walters Art Gallery's 1904 building."

Working out of a minimal office with no paid staff, Ms. Hoffberger in the last three and a half years has raised $5.5 million of her formerly projected goal of $7.5 million to build the museum and get it running. That includes $1.3 million in state bond issues, $1.8 million from the Zanvyl Krieger Fund and $500,000 from Anita and Gordon Roddick, founders of the Body Shop International, a worldwide toiletries chain.

The apparent savings on construction means the goal for getting started can be lowered from $7.5 million to $6.5 million. "We're hoping to finish out the campaign in the next six months," she says.

Visionary or "outsider" art is hard to define without getting either too broad or too narrow. A proposal drawn up for Ms. Hoffberger's museum defines it this way:

"The art produced by self-taught individuals independent of the influence of mainstream art. The visionary or 'outsider' artist is driven by his or her own internal impulses to create. The visual product is a striking personal statement possessing a powerful, often spiritual quality. Prominent among the creators of visionary art are the mentally ill, the disabled, and the elderly. Their art exemplifies the human capacity to overcome difficulty through creative response."

Roots of museum idea

Ms. Hoffberger got the idea for her museum in the 1980s when working as development director for a job training program for people with chronic mental illness. And AVAM's permanent collection includes some 2,000 drawings by patients. The drawings formerly belonged to psychiatrist Otto Billig. But Ms. Hoffberger emphasizes that the museum will not be confined to showing work by the mentally ill and disabled. Rather, she says, "We want to have the widest range of self-taught artistry, from those such as farmers, street people, factory workers, retired people and so on."

In Europe, there are a dozen or more art museums devoted to visionary art, but there has never been one in the United States. In 1992 Congress designated the American Visionary Art Museum as "the proper national museum, repository and education center" for American visionary art.

The city has donated two buildings, a one-time paint company and a former whiskey warehouse, at the northeastern foot of Federal Hill just across Key Highway from the Inner Harbor. Baltimore architects Castro/Swanston Associates have created a design that incorporates the paint company building in a more than 32,000-square-foot complex with a sweeping rounded wall, eventually to be covered with a mosaic of shards of ceramics, glass and other found objects.

The main building will include exhibition galleries, a research library, classroom, gift shop, offices, storage and a third-floor cafe to be run by Ben & Jerry's ice cream as an employment/training program for the disabled.

Sculpture barn and garden

The smaller 3,400-square-foot building will serve as an indoor sculpture barn and summer theater, and its facade will have four "sentinel" sculptures looking toward the harbor. The complex will also include a wildflower/sculpture garden and a plaza that will feature a 35-foot windmill sculpture commissioned from well-known outsider artist Vollis Simpson.

Author and curator Roger Manley will serve as consultant curator for outdoor sculpture, and Ms. Hoffberger envisions one full-time curator, not herself, among an initial staff of about 12 full-time employees and 25 or more volunteers. Ms. Hoffberger, president of AVAM, estimates a first-year operational budget of about $850,000.

Among projected exhibits are three-dimensional works created from wood and tree products, including matchstick sculptures, hermit wood puppets, wood machines and musical instruments; hand-embellished vehicles, especially motorcycles; apocalyptic vision art; handmade clothes and personal environments of mental patients, street people and others; and the products of elderly creativity.

Ms. Hoffberger says the emphasis of the collection and exhibitions will be on American visionary art, but she defines that broadly as art from all of the Americas.

Sunday's ground-breaking will be addressed by Anita Roddick; John Maizels, editor of the outsider art magazine Raw Vision; Mr. Manley; and Ms. Hoffberger. The main building will be named after Zanvyl and Isabelle Krieger, and the sculpture barn after Ms. Roddick. The project architect is Davis, Bowen & Friedel Inc., and Ms. Hoffberger predicts an opening in summer 1995.

Earlier this year Bernard Fishman, executive director of the Jewish Historical Society of Maryland, conferred with Ms. Hoffberger in his capacity as a member of the accreditation visiting committee for the American Association of Museums. After their meeting, Mr. Fishman wrote Ms. Hoffberger a letter in which he stated in part, "I see your institution as bringing nothing but good for our people and our city."

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