A new home for visionary art

December 09, 1993

In 1950 James Hampton, a quiet man who spent most of his working life as a janitor at the General Services Administration in Washington, D.C., rented an unheated, poorly lighted garage near his home in the District. After finishing his janitorial duties each evening at midnight, he went there and worked for five or six hours on a project he believed God had ordained him to complete.

Using discarded materials -- old furniture, cardboard, bottles, kraft paper, desk blotters, burnt out light bulbs and sheets of aluminum and gold foil -- he constructed a monumental tableaux consisting of 177 objects, including a throne chair, pulpits and offertory tables, which he collectively titled "The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations' Millennium General Assembly" and which now forms part of the permanent collection of the National Museum of American Art.

James Hampton's improbable creation is the most famous American example of so-called "outsider" or "visionary art" -- works produced by self-taught, often isolated individuals working independently of the influence of mainstream art. Europe has several institutions devoted to visionary art, but Baltimore will be the first American city to create a museum dedicated to this unique genre when the American Visionary Art Museum opens its doors across from the Inner Harbor in 1995.

The brainchild of local arts activist Rebecca Hoffberger, the museum is the product of nearly a decade of effort to bring this underappreciated art form to Baltimore. Over the last three and a half years Ms. Hoffberger has raised some $5.5 million to build the museum and get it running. 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. The main building will include exhibition galleries, a library, classroom, gift shop, offices, storage and a third-floor cafe to be run by Ben & Jerry's ice cream as an employment and training program for the disabled.

The museum is an important addition to Baltimore's arts community, a point noted by Bernard Fishman of the American Association of Museums: "As 'modern' art becomes more and more emotionally attenuated and intellectually self-absorbed," Mr. Fishman wrote in a letter to Ms. Hoffberger, "it represents itself in ways that become increasingly incomprehensible to the average visitor. 'Outsider' art seems bursting with emotion and is expressed in a visual language much more intelligible to most viewers. I see your institution as bringing nothing but good for our people and our city."

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