They prize beauty and the bizarre


December 11, 2005

While many in Baltimore are itching to explore the soon-to-open $74.6 million "Animal Planet Australia: Wild Extremes" addition to the National Aquarium on Pier 3 at the city's Inner Harbor, there are other attractions on a smaller scale that are worthy of attention.

Two particularly inviting choices are Dick Horne's American Dime Museum at 1818 Maryland Ave., just north of the Jones Falls Expressway, and Rebecca Hoffberger's American Visionary Art Museum, perched on the south shore of the Inner Harbor with a spectacular view of the hubbub at the aquarium.

Each, in its own way, is a brilliant example of what a wealth of inspiration and a little money can achieve.

In the case of the Dime Museum, too little money.

The Dime, which bills itself as a unique contemporary version of 19th-century dime museums - collections of the world's strangest flotsam and jetsam - is closing its doors indefinitely Dec. 31.

Horne blames the closing on a fundraising drought accompanied by a combination of escalating costs: rent, insurance and utility bills that make it impossible to go on, even with an all-volunteer staff.

Beyond what is billed as the world's largest ball of string in the window, the Dime Museum exhibition includes numerous re-creations, from Fiji mermaids to shrunken heads, as well as original artifacts, including one of the only surviving Nelson Supply Co. giantess mummies. The sideshow features an extensive display of banners as well as genuine sideshow props and "backyard" paraphernalia.

There is lots of other miscellaneous junk, including a feathered fish and other bizarre stuffed animals and wooden models. On one wall hangs an early poster warning about the dangers of marijuana.

Things are a lot more lively these days at the Visionary Art Museum, which opened its doors in 1995 with the stated intention of founder Rebecca Hoffberger to "create a place where the best of self-taught, intuitive contributions of all kinds (of art) will be duly recognized, explored, and then championed in a clear strong voice."

The architecturally striking building includes a tall sculpture barn fashioned out of a former Four Roses whiskey warehouse, a sculpture plaza, a wildflower garden with a meditation chapel, and, resting at the top, the Joy America Cafe, a restaurant with arguably the best view in Baltimore.

Perched on the plaza is a 55-foot brilliant, multicolored wind-powered sculpture that was created as a salute to Federal Hill and "Life, Liberty & The Pursuit of Happiness" by 76-year-old mechanic, farmer and visionary artist Vollis Simpson.

Inside, there is a lot more fun and challenging stuff - most importantly, just now, an exhibition on Race, Class, Gender and Character.

The exhibition is dedicated to guest curator Lily Yeh, a landscape artist who worked to establish inspirational communities in North Philadelphia, Nairobi, Kenya, and rural China.

The American Dime Museum is open from 12 to 3 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays and 12 to 5 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. Admission is $5 for adults and $3 for children.

The American Visionary Art Museum is open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. Admission is $11 for adults and $7 for seniors and children.

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