Life after whiskey barrels Inner Harbor: Visionary Art Museum's expansion should spur Key Highway build-up.

September 27, 1997

WHEN BALTIMORE'S American Visionary Art Museum first opened in November 1995, it was the nation's first permanent exhibit venue devoted exclusively to ''outsider'' art. People have flocked to view works by self-taught artists, making the Visionary Art Museum a popular Inner Harbor destination.

The privately operated museum along Key Highway now faces a new challenge. It has won exclusive negotiating rights from the Baltimore Development Corp. to redevelop an abandoned five-story whiskey-barrel warehouse next door. That's the good news. The bad news is that $5 million now must be raised to turn the vacant red-brick hulk into usable exhibit space.

The dream of Rebecca Hoffberger, who founded the Inner Harbor museum, is to convert the old whiskey-barrel warehouse into exhibit areas for large-scale art and for workshops (see sketch below). The top floor would house a glass-roofed ''Center for Visionary Thought'' that would bring unconventional thinkers in various fields together for conferences on solving urban and environmental problems.

''There are a lot of rays of hope. I just want to light a fire and give it a forum, a non-governmental forum,'' explains Mrs. Hoffberger.

The BDC board also recommended that the city sell another parcel near Federal Hill to a second group for construction of a $4 million, 20-unit townhouse community.

If these projects materialize, they could accelerate the redevelopment of Key Highway from the Inner Harbor to Locust Point in South Baltimore.

That stretch of waterfront vistas contains many choice parcels. Its redevelopment has been slow, though, except for the Harborview condominium complex and two recently opened restaurants. Plans for a five-story nursing home containing 180 beds are progressing, however. If all goes well, construction might start next summer.

The Visionary Art Museum is a potent people magnet. Last year it attracted 65,000 paid visitors. Some 20,000 others saw its exhibits either during parties or on complimentary tickets. The more popular the museum becomes, the more its success will contribute to Baltimore's economic health. It is an institution worthy of the community's support.

Pub Date: 9/27/97

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