The American Visionary Art Museum is entering a new era with Rebecca Alban Hoffberger’s retirement Sunday as its full-time director and Detroit native Jenenne Whitfield coming in as the new director starting Sept. 6.
Mayor Brandon Scott announced on Sunday that Covington Street will be renamed “Rebecca A. Hoffberger Way” in honor of her role as the museum’s co-founder and only director since it opened in 1995.
“Rebecca, you have provided an opportunity for so many artists who have been overlooked by so many people,” the mayor said. “Thank you for your vision. Thank you for empowering our community. And thank you for believing in Baltimore.”
Whitfield is leaving her job as president and CEO of The Heidelberg Project, an outdoor art environment and community organization in Detroit, to become the second director of AVAM.
Located at 800 Key Highway, AVAM has been designated by Congress as a “national repository and educational center for visionary art,” which the museum defines as works “produced by self-taught individuals, usually without formal training” which arise from “an innate personal vision that revels foremost in the creative act itself.” AVAM and its executive search firm, m/Oppenheim Associates, received more than 140 applications for Hoffberger’s position.
Like Hoffberger, Whitfield is well-known as a leader in the field of visionary art, also called outsider art or intuitive art. Whitfield’s husband, the artist Tyree Guyton, was the founder of The Heidelberg Project. Whitfield has been with The Heidelberg Project for 28 years and became its president in 2017.
Together, Whitfield and Guyton coined and trademarked the idiom “Heidelberg-ology,” defined as the study of discarded materials incorporated into the fabric and structure of an urban community and the effects on that community. Under Whitfield’s leadership, the work of the Heidelberg Project spans six continents and has collected more than two dozen awards, locally, nationally and internationally.
Though she was feted with a “farewell carnival” Sunday — with stilt walkers, balloons, cotton candy, hula hoopers, speeches, a fife and drum corps, and commemorative candles — Hoffberger has agreed to stay on part time during the transition period. AVAM Chief Financial Officer and Chief Operating Officer Donna Katrinic will run the museum day-to-day until early September.
Last month, Hoffberger (RH), Whitfield (JW) and AVAM Board Chair Christopher Goelet (CG) had a conference call on Zoom to answer questions about the museum and its future. Whitfield spoke from Detroit. They hinted at some changes in store, such as new curators and a possible alliance with other organizations that celebrate visionary art.
The conversation has been edited and condensed.
Baltimore Fishbowl: Rebecca Hoffberger said from the start that she wanted her successor to be better than she is – to not just maintain the status quo but bring more to AVAM than she did. Ms. Whitfield, can you say what you might offer in that regard?
JW: Well, that’s huge. I want to say that. And I think that, for me, it really is about just being open and being flexible, looking at what needs to happen, the changes in our society. Look at the world we’re living in now. We’re still in a pandemic. There’s a war going on. There are mental health issues that people deal with. Art historically has been a conduit that helps to open up and also bring new life and new hope and new energy. So I think anything’s possible, and that’s my motto. At the bottom of my email salutation, it says: “Those who say it can’t be done should get out of the way of those doing it,” and I believe that.
BFB: There had been talk about the AVAM director position being divided into two slots, someone who chiefly curates the exhibits at the museum and then someone who takes care of the business of the museum. Is that still the plan?
CG: The plan at this stage is no, that we just want one director. We expect the director to take charge of also selecting other curators if she’s not going to do curation herself. Jenenne is a curator herself but she’s also made it clear that she likes the idea of bringing in outside curators. So a curator’s position at this stage is not something that we’re planning on filling on a permanent basis.
BFB: Ms. Whitfield, you say you don’t like the word “outsider” to describe self-taught artists, or the term “folk art.” Does the term “visionary” fit with your approach?
JW: Absolutely if fits. To me, it’s a richer way of describing a creative process that comes from the soul as opposed to a process that’s taught. There’s nothing wrong [with being] taught, to be clear. It’s just that I think we are equally celebrating those that are creating from the soul… What I really like is “intuitive,” because we’re talking about people that are creating from the soul and that has a richness to it.
BFB: Will your husband, Tyree Guyton, come to Baltimore too?
JW: He will not. He has to hold it down here in Detroit. The Heidelberg Project is really gaining momentum and he is the founder and still has family on Heidelberg Street, so there’s a lot of work still to be done and my successor will support him in that work. We will commute back and forth.
BFB: How will the transition work?
CG: I think at the moment, Rebecca is going to stay on at least 50 percent of the time. She has a lot of work that she’s never been able to complete due to being consistently busy with doing everything at the museum, so she has quite a lot of things to catch up with. Donna Katrinic, our very, very competent CFO/COO, will continue dealing with the day-to-day questions and Rebecca will be there to help and assist if she’s needed. And then Jenenne will come literally September 6, at least by September 6, and will take over. That will be a period when the museum actually will be closed because [we will be putting up a] new exhibition and she’ll therefore have some time and an opportunity to get to know all the various staff in the museum and how it all operates.
RH: Our museum has really been thoughtful for such a long time about a successor. I had a little bit of a health scare years ago with some blood clots and I was aware that I could die of a stroke in the night. So literally 10 years ago, I went through very specific successor training with a group that does nothing but that in Washington, D.C. And then from all of our key staff, certainly Donna Katrinic, who’s been with us from almost day one, succession training. Our director of security, Will Wells. So that if anything happened to any one of us, because we are such a small SWAT team of staff, that all of our connections, all of our passwords, all of the key duties and functions that we do were noted in such a way that others would have access. It’s been a very thoughtful process.
BFB: AVAM usually has one major thematic exhibition a year. Do you have the next major exhibit lined up?
RH: A young MICA graduate, Gage Branda, is the chief curator for the next exhibition. He’s been an assistant to me. I’ve mentored him. But he has his own wonder, and so the fall show is in place. I’ve tried to put it in place so that Jenenne can have this incredible, well-run machine with the best museum staff…in place and ready to be there to help her shine and bring AVAM into the next quarter of a century and beyond, stronger than ever.
BFB: What’s the theme of the next exhibit?
RH: It is called: “ABUNDANCE: Too Much, Too Little, Just Right.” It champions artists like Tressa “Grandma” Prisbrey, who at the age of 60 built from glass bottles at the dump 15 houses into something called Bottle Village, installing all the electricity and plumbing by herself. She didn’t complete it until she was in her early 90s.
BFB: For Ms. Whitfield, you’ve said you want to have good connections with art schools such as the Maryland Institute College of Art. Is that any sort of change in the philosophy of the museum, to have more direct relationships to teaching institutions when AVAM has always been about self-taught art?
JW: Well, I think it’s important. Even though artists are self-taught, there is a huge educational opportunity in that and … what I would like to see happen. Here in Detroit, for example, a university really became one of our greatest champions to help support new learning, and so I think it’s important to recognize that even though artists are self-taught, there is a huge educational opportunity for our children to understand what does that mean, what does that creative process look like and how can they potentially achieve it? I think that is incredibly important and we are strong advocates of the educational process.
BFB: AVAM is known for showing work by self-taught artists, as opposed to artists who enrolled in fine arts schools. Now, more “mainstream” museums are collecting and exhibiting visionary or intuitive art. The Baltimore Museum of Art is collecting works by self taught artists, particularly Black American self-taught artists. That has been AVAM’s turf. Are the lines blurring? Does that make AVAM’s job more difficult?
JW: I don’t think so. You know, I think sometimes that…it’s really the art critics…and maybe sometimes educational institutions, that kind of draw these lines of demarcation. When you talk to a visionary artist, for example, versus a fine artist, they don’t really have that issue, you know what I’m saying? So the blurred lines for me have to do with just the idea of creating, period. What does that process look like and how do you bring it together? I don’t really see that it’s going to be complicated. I hope there’s an opportunity to, for example, curate a particular exhibition that might consist of both.
BFB: AVAM’s collection contains work by people who have been trained in fine art, such as David Hess, who has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Visual Studies from Dartmouth College. So there are already examples of both on the premises.
RH: Actually, amongst our staff, six employees are graduates of MICA and every year for a very big number of years, the incoming students to MICA are given an orientation to Baltimore and one of the big things that they do is to tour the museum with me. And then I work with Coppin and Morgan and Towson staff, with their art departments, and particularly the curatorial department of MICA, to really get an in-depth understanding every year of our view, which is quite unique, in terms of the marriage of science and art and medicine and social justice and humor in every exhibition. So the formula that we have evolved allows for great openness of — I don’t know if it’s so important to blur the line, but to be receptive to that visionary, soulful spark that Jenenne spoke so well of, embedded or emerging from a wide variety of human behaviors.
Right now, in the “Compassion” show, we have three physicians who have created [art]. One brain surgeon but self-taught artist on view at this moment. So I know that Jenenne will really have that inner guidance. She was, of all the candidates, the one most deeply affected by the exhibition, the Holocaust embroideries of Esther Krinitz, of just going through the museum and seeing how we have put things together. That gives me a lot of peace because now she’ll run with her own creative insight. I know the depth of her sincere appreciation for what AVAM has been.
Listen, what would we be without the collaborations that we’ve made globally with people like Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Patch Adams and so many Nobel Laureates with our connection with the Hubble [Space Telescope]? Where do fresh, evolutionary thoughts come from? That’s what we’re fascinated by. I know Jenenne has that lifelong passion for the same thing.
BFB: Ms. Whitfield, you bring expertise in displaying art outdoors, an area that Rebecca has also championed with works along Key Highway such as Vollis Simpson’s Whirligig and Andrew Logan’s Cosmic Galaxy Egg. Is there enough land on the 1.1 acres at AVAM to contain what you’d like to do in Baltimore?
JW: Detroit is loaded with land, my goodness. You have to remember, too, that Detroit has a lot of vacants and just eyesores.
BFB: Baltimore does too.
JW: Well, that may be true. But what I’m suggesting is it was contiguous lands that were all together in that space [in Detroit], and that lends itself to great creativity. As a result of that effort, there’s a strong economy that has started to begin. It was rough to get there. But now the community is changing. So it’s a fact that art [can help bring about change], at least in my specific area. I think that AVAM has done a phenomenal job of beautifully spacing out the outdoor installations. You don’t need to necessarily overcrowd or overdo. You want to make it so that it’s inviting and thought-provoking and yet thoughtful for the area.
BFB: For Ms. Whitfield, a lot of what you’re known for is Detroit-focused, whereas the American Visionary Art Museum showcases work by self-taught artists from around the country. Will that be a challenge for you?
JW: We’ve created projects all around the country. Although the work is essentially focused in Detroit, we are also an internationally-recognized organization not only through the tourism that comes through the site but because of the work that we have created in, for example, Australia; in Shenzhen, China (for the Shenzhen Biennale of Architecture/Urbanism); in Mount Vernon, New York. So we have experience in terms of creating exhibitions and indoor and outdoor spaces around the country and the world. I don’t think it will be a challenge.
I think what’s going to be exciting for me is learning what Baltimore is really all about and what it needs. I think that’s so critical. Every city doesn’t need the exact same thing. You know, that’s why you come to Baltimore. The American Visionary Art Museum, there’s nothing like it. Just like there’s nothing like the Heidelberg Project. That’s a wonderful space. That’s the thing to build on.
BFB: Do you see potential for a satellite museum on the West Coast for AVAM, a second or third outpost?
JW: Absolutely. I think that’s exciting. I think what we’re talking about is a philosophy [about] museums, as being more critical to what’s happening to our society right now. Not just being repositories of works by people who are no longer here but instead to be educational institutions, as they were always intended to be.
BFB: Could you see The Heidelberg Project and AVAM merging? It sounds like there’s synergy, a chance to draw on the strengths of both, maybe create a network or alliance of intuitive museums?
JW: Well, there is, and that’s why I’ve spoken about it as being an expansion of the work. See, the Heidelberg Project is simply a location. AVAM is a location. What to me is exciting is to be able to go into AVAM with many of the philosophies that Rebecca and I share, and we’re just continuing and expanding. Anything is possible in terms of collaborations, in terms of partnerships. But I think the dialogue and the education behind the work are what I’m looking at growing.