A visionary's project 'Outsider art': Rebecca Hoffberger's American Visionary Art Museum will house creations made by people who hover on the fringes of society

November 19, 1995|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN STAFF


Rebecca Hoffberger has an idea. What if businesses everywhere took on one socially conscious project each? That would help people.

Don't be negative. It could happen.

After all, more than 10 years ago, Ms. Hoffberger had an idea that sounded just as unlikely. What if someone raised enough money and political support to build a new art museum in Baltimore and filled it with fantastical things created by people who are poor, uneducated, unknown, unstable or unwanted? That would help people.

Don't be negative. It is happening. On Friday, the American Visionary Art Museum, a curving, glittering, $7 million, brick-and-glass product of Rebecca Hoffberger's imagination, will open. Perched on the curve of Key Highway by the harbor, the fledgling museum -- the first of its kind in the country -- will be the national repository for works that push the envelope of what's considered art.

As unusual as the art is, so is the institution -- and its founder.

Ms. Hoffberger is just as likely to consider a lucky day one in which she spies a four-leaf clover in her front lawn as she is one in which she clinches an important business deal. A Pikesville High dropout, she studied mime in Paris and nontraditional medicine in Mexico and shares traits with bulldogs and clairvoyants. So far the museum, with a philosophy rooted in the green movement and pure emotion, has no in-house curators and no membership lists. Visitors here are more likely to come across a shaman than an art history major.

Not everyone in Baltimore's cultural circles will be thrilled. "This kind of art and Rebecca's outlook on it is completely new," says Bernard Fishman, director of Maryland's Jewish Historical Society. "Mark my words, you will find that many people in the established art world will be cautious and unsure about this."

Sometimes called "outsider art," these creations are made by people who themselves hover on the fringes of society. Unfettered by rules taught in any earthly art class, they create with an emotional rawness and an urgency that strikes at the soul. Many say that God sends messages through them; others, in prisons or mental health institutions, can't describe their motivation.

Their art speaks of healing or cries out for it, such as wood carvings by a South American shaman or biblical scenes painted by a woman who witnessed her daughter's murder. Other works, like a woman's head made of hundreds of matchsticks glued in repetitive geometric patterns, hint at obsession. Their creators are linked, not by a common understanding of art history, but vision: an ability to see things, painful or wondrous, where others see nothing at all.

In this way, the artists are linked also to their benefactor.

Where others saw nothing, Ms. Hoffberger saw possibility. Where they saw impossible odds, she saw a museum. Where they saw unconventional works made by people who know little of art, she saw something grand.

So she pushed, prodded, wheedled and cajoled until the city gave her two buildings worth $1.1 million to house her museum. Until the state issued $1.3 million in bonds to pay for construction. Until foundations, corporations and individuals gave her money to hire architects, to buy a 45-foot sculpture, to pay an exhibition curator. Now, after 10 long years, her vision will become reality.

'Ideas on top of ideas'

The basement of Ms. Hoffberger's large Stevenson home evokes an expectant feeling. Its small rooms are crammed with objects waiting to be put in the museum. There are tree stumps carved into bug-eyed coyotes or lizards with Seussian qualities, a wooden chair with a tail, delicate jewelry boxes of matchsticks and glue. A rough-hewn table is covered with a sculpture of a fairy's tea party: Jack-in-the-pulpits serve as tiny chairs, mushroom caps make minute teacups. A full-sized, hand-carved kayak hugs the wall beneath a dog-with-curling-tongue totem.

What else is down here?

Alice's rabbit?

Early one October morning, Ms. Hoffberger and two harried-looking assistants are in this makeshift office pecking out letters on computers, stuffing envelopes with last-minute fund-raiser invitations, answering an incessantly ringing telephone.

Between calls, a torrent of ideas flows from Ms. Hoffberger. As soon as this project (the museum!) is done, she's writing a play about engineering genius Nikola Tesla. Hindu astrology is amazingly accurate, don't you agree? Let's have emu eggs as centerpieces at the fund-raiser. "She has ideas on top of ideas," says Roger Manley, the North Carolinian curator of "The Tree of Life," the inaugural exhibit. "Sometimes they cancel each other out unless someone says, 'Hey, wait a minute!' "

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