The American Visionary Art Museum has dismissed director Jenenne Whitfield, just over a year since she took the helm of the Baltimore art museum, its board of directors announced Thursday.
Founding director Rebecca Alban Hoffberger will return temporarily to serve as artistic director. She will assist with curating exhibits and developing AVAM’s endowment.
The museum’s daily operations will be shared by Donna Katrinic, director of finance and operations, and Valerie Williams, director of development and marketing.
This shared leadership structure will continue “for the remainder of 2023 and 2024,” according to a news release.
AVAM’s board of directors plans to form a search committee “in the coming days” to select Whitfield’s replacement.
“After an extensive review of issues essential to the strategic growth of AVAM, the Board of Directors decided to part ways with Jenenne Whitfield as director,” board chair Christopher Goelet said in a statement. “While deeply unfortunate, the Board nonetheless appreciates Ms. Whitfield’s contributions over the past year and wishes her well in her future endeavors.”
Whitfield became the museum’s second-ever director on Sept. 6, 2022. She previously served as president and CEO of the Heidelberg Project in Detroit, an outdoor arts environment.
AVAM announced in March 2022 that it had selected Whitfield to succeed Hoffberger as she retired from leading the museum she co-founded with her former husband, the late LeRoy Hoffberger, more than two decades ago.
“Without reservation, and with unanimous AVAM Board and staff accord, I have the utmost peace and joy in our rightful selection of Jenenne Whitfield as my successor,” Hoffberger said in March 2022.
Hoffberger continued, “She cherishes and ‘gets’ all the key elements that have made AVAM such a healing and magic, beloved destination…. From the moment we met, I felt a load lifted and a great relief descend. She’s our ‘one.’”
But weeks after Whitfield’s first anniversary with the museum, its board of directors announced they and the museum director will go their separate ways.
Hoffberger told Baltimore Fishbowl on Thursday “this was not a decision made lightly,” and the board was unanimous in its choice to dismiss Whitfield.
“We all wish it had ended differently but every support really was given and it was just not a great fit,” Hoffberger said.
She said she could not provide more details on the reasoning for Whitfield’s dismissal.
However, Hoffberger said AVAM is a “well-oiled machine” and she is confident in her staff’s ability to run the museum – with or without a director.
“If I die tonight, my staff is so capable that everything that people love about AVAM would be preserved,” she said.
Hoffberger added, “I’m so proud of our staff and our board who are very deeply thoughtful and kind people and very devoted to treasuring the strengths of AVAM and preserving them.”
Hoffberger said AVAM’s search committee spent two and a half years looking for a new director before ultimately choosing Whitfield. As the museum prepares to launch a new search process, Hoffberger said the other finalists from that previous selection will not be considered again.
“We know certainly from the choice we had that Whitfield was our best choice and we had high hopes,” she said. “I think we had a different vision, the board felt, of how to go forward. Again, we wish her well and hope she finds a place that shares her vision as well.”
In AVAM’s next director, Hoffberger wants “someone who values and treasures and wants to see things preserved. You have to preserve before you expand.”
One of Hoffberger’s focuses will be the museum’s endowment campaign. AVAM’s current endowment is $3 million, and Hoffberger said she wants to raise another $25 million.
Hoffberger said she has also committed to visiting Croatia next spring to help the government there explore the possibility of creating their own museum similar to AVAM.
Since the announcement of AVAM’s changing leadership, Hoffberger said she has been overwhelmed by the museum’s supporters.
“I really appreciate all the love and outpouring I’ve had this morning,” she said. “It’s been a little overwhelming. People really care about AVAM and the spirit in which we’ve conducted for a long time.”
Before becoming AVAM’s director, Whitfield worked with the Heidelberg Project for 28 years and was its president and CEO since 2017. She also co-founded the United Artists of Detroit art collective.
Upon her selection to lead the museum, Whitfield joined a growing group of Black leaders of Baltimore cultural institutions. Other recent selections have included the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s music director Jonathon Heyward; the Walters Art Museum’s board chair James DeGraffenreidt Jr. and board president Guy E. Flynn; the Baltimore Museum of Art’s board chair James D. Thornton; and the Creative Alliance’s executive director Gregory Smith, who stepped down in May citing family reasons; among others.
Whitfield wanted to create even more opportunities for showcasing self-taught artists.
“What excites me most is that AVAM’s philosophy and visual aesthetics are beautifully aligned with what it means to be human and what we should strive for as a human race,” she said in a statement when she was named director in March 2022. “Rebecca has done an extraordinary job of embracing, advancing and providing a place for the intuitive creative spirit to flourish and grow. I look forward to building upon her strong foundation by increasing AVAM’s visibility, building greater alliances and taking AVAM to its next level.”
She told Baltimore Fishbowl in April 2022 that she was eager to learn about Baltimore’s unique needs, and provide for them through the museum.
“I think what’s going to be exciting for me is learning what Baltimore is really all about and what it needs,” Whitfield said in an April 2022 interview with Baltimore Fishbowl, after she had been named AVAM’s director but before she officially stepped into the role. “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.”
AVAM has often been dubbed a home for “outsider” art, though Whitfield disliked the label, opting instead for terms like “visionary” or “intuitive,” which she felt better captured her approach to art.
“To me, [the term ‘visionary’ is] a richer way of describing a creative process that comes from the soul as opposed to a process that’s taught,” she said in that April 2022 interview. “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.”
Whitfield was named to serve on Mayor Brandon Scott’s newly-established Arts & Culture Advisory Committee this week.
Baltimore Fishbowl has reached out to the mayor’s office for an update about Whitfield’s seat on the committee.
AVAM’s next mega-exhibition, “If You Build It, They Will Come,” will open Oct. 7, 2023 and will run through Sept. 1, 2024.”
Baltimore Fishbowl has reached out to Whitfield, through an AVAM spokesperson, for comment. We will update this story if more information becomes available.