Critics applaud new museum High marks: Out-of-town art critics, denizens of the art community and an appreciative public think the American Visionary Art Museum is a great addition.

January 29, 1996|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

The American Visionary Art Museum is still the baby of the art world, but judging by the numbers so far, and the reception the 2-month-old facility has gotten in the press, it should have a bright future.

The 40,000-square-foot museum at the Inner Harbor, devoted to the artwork of self-taught people outside the mainstream, opened on Nov. 24. In the first 41 days (it was closed four days because of the blizzard) 12,175 people have visited -- about 300 a day. Income from admissions and the gift shop totaled about $113,000.

Both those figures are ahead of monthly projections, which are based on a yearly goal of 100,000-plus visitors. Earnings from all sources -- admissions, gift shop, cafe rental, etc. -- are projected to be about $1 million of the museum's $1.5 million annual budget.

These annual projections take into account the fact that winter is the slow season at Inner Harbor attractions.

Earned income will cover everything except for the $400,000 cost of "Wind in My Hair," the museum's second major show that's due to open in October, and the $80,000 cost of the catalog for "Tree of Life," the current show, according to Rebecca Hoffberger, museum president.

Two anonymous donors have already underwritten the catalog cost, and Hoffberger plans to raise money for the "Wind in My Hair" exhibit primarily from private foundations.

RTC The museum's reception in the art world has been favorable, as well.

Writing in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, visual arts critic Catherine Fox devoted separate articles to the architecture and the art. Of the museum's main building, she wrote that the design of Baltimore architects Rebecca Swanston and Alex Castro "not only embodies the dynamism and imagination of visionary art, but also the sense of discovery and embracing spirit that is the museum's mission." The building's rounded shape, she added, "makes for a series of delightfully eccentric and intimate gallery spaces with curved walls and pockets of surprises. Wandering through is an adventure in itself."

About the museum's inaugural show, Fox wrote, "In keeping with the museum's all-embracing spirit, 'Tree of Life' resists hierarchy, category and analysis. . . . The show functions best as a celebration of the infinite permutations of the creative spirit, and on that score it is a galloping success." She concluded that "this is a museum of infectious high spirits that is certain to raise the profile of the art it celebrates."

Critic Benjamin Forgey, writing in the Washington Post, called the building "a great place . . . a beautiful, smart surprise."

He especially admired the architects' employment of curves in the design. "From any point of view -- back, front, sides -- you see walls that curve comfortingly, whether made of brick or concrete. This is the emotional key to the design. The curves are at once gentle and dramatic, enticing and encircling, contrasting and complementary." Forgey called the art in "Tree of Life" "an astonishing assortment, by turns whimsical, diverting, disturbed, serene, intensely focused, powerfully moving."

Patricia C. Johnson of the Houston Chronicle wrote that the main building "looks somewhat like a chambered nautilus, with wedge-shaped exhibition galleries and service spaces spinning off from the grand staircase at its center. . . . A galvanized steel spine bisects the curving interior spaces of each floor into spatially intriguing shapes and forms small alcoves where individual artworks are spot-lighted."

Of the art, she wrote, "The range of shapes, subjects and sizes in these sculptures, reliefs and assemblages boggles the mind, a testament to the varied obsessions and compulsions that produced them."

But she also posed a question, which others have raised as well. "How can visionary art and artists survive the embrace of the mainstream, which is by definition anathema of visionaries? It threatens to render the concept meaningless, turning it into an issue of style rather than substance." And she cautioned: "If AVAM . . . is to succeed in its mission of preserving visionary art, it must make a commitment to protect its spirit with as much enthusiasm, and maybe more, as it expends on its physical form."

Writing in the New York Times, Michael Janofsky stated that Vollis Simpson's giant whirligig at the entrance to the museum "is more than a fresh landmark. It is also an invitation to the equally joyous works on exhibit just beyond." He noted that the stories of the artists are at least as interesting as the art itself.

"Perhaps more than anything else," Janofsky wrote, "the American Visionary Art Museum stakes out its fanciful place in the cultural landscape less for celebrating unusual creations than for their unusual creators, artists of disparate backgrounds who have wandered down their own paths of spirit and interpretation."

Museum professionals have reacted favorably, too. "It's wonderfully alive and playful, and at the same time filled with objects that have extraordinary conviction," said Gill Ravenel, senior curator and chairman of design at the National Gallery in Washington.

"I love the eccentricity of the spaces," he added. "It sort of breaks the mold of what you expect to find in a traditional museum."

Tom Freudenheim, former director of the Baltimore Museum of Art and former assistant secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, agreed. "I thought it was a very happy place," he said. "The gallery spaces are amazingly big, and I was impressed by how workable it was." From his one visit, he said, he found the art "immensely engaging. And people were really looking at it, which is a rare thing in museums. Looking at it and drawn into it." The museum, he said, is "another feather in Baltimore's cap."

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