AVAM is expanding with change in mind

Museum to use addition to aid communities

October 28, 2004|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

The Bluebird of Happiness has landed in Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

It joins a 38-foot-wide stainless steel Bird's Nest and an 8-foot-tall Cosmic Galaxy Egg.

They're three of the fanciful creations that visitors will encounter when they tour the newest wing of the American Visionary Art Museum, the Jim Rouse Visionary Center.

Constructed in and around a former whiskey barrel warehouse at 820 Key Highway, the $9.3 million addition provides needed space for the 9-year-old museum, the first in this country devoted exclusively to visionary art - works by self-taught artists outside the mainstream. Congress has declared it the "national repository and educational center for visionary art."

Designed by Cho Benn Holback + Associates, the three-story building - which opens Nov. 16 - will contain exhibit space, classrooms, a top-level conference center and an outdoor "speaker's corner."

During a preview tour yesterday, museum founder and president Rebecca Hoffberger unveiled the 5-foot-tall sculpture Bluebird of Happiness, created and donated by Fells Point artist Dick Brown. Perched on a wall just south of the new building, it will greet people as they approach from Key Highway.

"We love the fact that winged things, be they butterflies or birds, have always been symbols of the human soul," Hoffberger said, explaining why so many works in the museum have ornithological themes.

Partly painted and partly covered with mosaic pieces, Brown's Bluebird also contains lyrics by blues singer Buddy Guy. "I'm leaving this town," it says. "Three things are certain - taxes, death and trouble.

"I've done a lot of paintings and a lot of mosaics, but this is the first time I've been able to [combine] the two," said Brown, a self-taught artist who works as a clinical psychotherapist.

Named after the late developer and "social visionary," the Rouse Center has several components. One of the largest spaces is the first-floor "Visionary Village," a cavernous area for large sculptures, art cars and "whole visionary environments."

Among the initial exhibits will be a display of painted screens by Baltimore artists such as Dee Herget and Johnny Eck, and a collection of automata, or small wooden sculptures with movable parts, from the Cabaret Mechanical Theatre in London. There's also a whimsical airplane by Leslie "Airplane" Payne, an artist from rural Virginia, and a hot-air balloon by California artist Leonard Knight.

The second floor contains the Hall of Social Visionaries, commemorating Rouse and others, and two teaching spaces, the Thou Art Creative Classroom and the Creative Social Activism Classroom. The first teaching space is for "hands-on art making inspired by visionary artists," and the second is a place for "exploring global innovations to better community life."

The top level is the Center for Visionary Thought and Expression, a whitewashed, barn-styled hall that can accommodate up to 500 people for dinners, conferences and other gatherings. It provides access to metal sculptor David Hess' Bird's Nest balcony, which offers panoramic views of the harbor and city skyline.

With the Rouse Center, Hoffberger said, the institution she founded will strive more than ever to move beyond the boundaries of a conventional art museum and become an agent for improving the community, by shining the spotlight on people and ideas that can make a difference.

"Our job is to find the global best practices that don't wait for the federal grants to come in, the people who transform cities into something more wonderful," she said. "We want people to awaken to the concept that cities belong to them and they can play a role in making them much better."

With this new building, "We're broadening our focus to include areas other than the arts," said Marcia Semmes, director of development and communications. "We're looking at community. We're looking at people's lives as works of art. It's a little bit radical. It's the museum as an instrument of positive social change. That's what this new building is going to focus on."

The opening will be preceded by a fund-raising gala Nov. 13 and a preview for members Nov. 14. Once the building opens, the admission price for an adult will rise to $11 from $9. The price for seniors and students will be $8, up from $6.

Hoffberger said one project she hopes to complete in time for the opening is paving the new staff parking lot with glasphalt - asphalt mixed with flecks of recycled glass that sparkle at night. "Every good person loves glasphalt," she said. "It's a litmus test."

On the west side of the building, she delights in pointing to sculptor Adam Kurtzman's 11-foot-high gold Divine Hand, sticking out of the brick wall.

"We don't have a bird in the hand," she quips. "We have a hand and a bird."

The hand will hold up a screen used to show outdoor movies to audiences on the eastern slope of Federal Hill - a continuation of the al fresco cinema experiences popular in Little Italy.

"If we had all the money in the world to move earth any way we wanted, we couldn't have a better neighbor than Federal Hill," she said. "I think it's going to be a wonderful place to show films."

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