Rebecca Hoffberger

After 26 years as founder, director and primary curator of the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, Rebecca Alban Hoffberger is bidding adieu.

Hoffberger, who co-founded the museum with her former husband, the late LeRoy Hoffberger, and built it into one of Baltimore’s most beloved attractions, has told her board of directors that she plans to retire in March of 2022.

The board has appointed m/Oppenheim Executive Search, a national firm that frequently works with museums, to launch an international search for her successor.

“After 41 total exhibitions, but 26 thematic ones, I’m passing the baton,” Hoffberger said. “The idea for the museum came to me in 1984, when I was working at Sinai Hospital for People Encouraging People, so it has occupied more than half my life…I think now is the right time.”

Hoffberger, who will turn 70 in 2022, said she intended to step down at the end of 2020 – AVAM’s 25th anniversary — but agreed to stay longer to help see the museum through the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

When America went into lockdown, “it was no time to try to bring in a new person,” she said. “No one knew how long the mandatory shutdown would be in effect or the impact that would have financially. The last thing to do, in an uncertain time, would have been to bring in somebody brand new, who couldn’t even be face-to-face with the employees. So I stayed on, and I’m glad I did.”

Hoffberger said she loves her time at the museum but wants to pursue other interests, including writing a play that she’s put off for years, about the close friendship between inventor Nikola Tesla and writer Mark Twain.

Her final curated exhibit as director will be “Healing & The Art of Compassion (And the Lack Thereof!),” scheduled for October 9, 2021, to September 4, 2022. It will focus on the twin forces for creating “greater good” in society, healing and compassion.

“I consider myself the luckiest woman I know,” Hoffberger said. “It has been such a fantastic privilege to imagine, birth and to help our American Visionary Art Museum flourish over these past decades, alongside the most wonderful hardworking staff imaginable. Every beautiful thought, opportunity to communally inspire some greater good, we have joyfully undertaken.”

LeRoy and Rebecca Hoffberger at the Art Brut Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland in 1985. Photo courtesy of American Visionary Art Museum.

Hoffberger has made an enormous contribution by founding and nurturing the museum, said AVAM Board Chair Christopher Goelet.

“Baltimore, the State of Maryland, and, in fact, the entire art world will forever be indebted to Rebecca for her vision in creating this ground-breaking living testament to human creativity, imagination and ingenuity,” he said.

“She and LeRoy imagined the possibility of a place where intuitive artists could evidence the rich and varied experiences of their everyday lives. They not only made this possible, but Rebecca has since given generations of artists and creators a prominent stage to share their own visions and stories in ways that change perspectives, as well as hearts and minds.”

Replacing her will be especially difficult because she was the founder, the only director the staff has ever known and has filled many roles, said Holly Gudelsky Stone, a board officer. “It’s like looking for a unicorn.”

“There is no way to replace Rebecca,” said Ted Frankel, aka Uncle Fun, proprietor of the museum’s gift shop, Sideshow. “She’s a creative force for good…AVAM’s board of directors has a huge responsibility on its shoulders.”

“Rebecca Hoffberger’s name is almost synonymous with the word ‘irreplaceable,” agreed Baltimore writer, filmmaker and visual artist John Waters, one of the museum’s biggest fans.

“She has given the world the perfect museum to celebrate Baltimore’s reputation as a welcoming home to eccentric artistic outsiders and crackpot personalities,” Waters said in an email message today. “The statue of Divine watches over the international visiting guests with benevolence and the same understanding Rebecca has for all artists who don’t fit in. Rebecca is passionate, obsessive in her drive, and nobody else could have made this place become such a major tourist destination. And now to find a successor? Who knows? We need another Glinda, the Good Witch of the Visionary. She’s out there somewhere…”

Change of leadership

The transition to a new director will be a critical period for the museum, Baltimore’s arts and tourism communities, and the wider arts scene. The choice is all the more significant because Hoffberger is so closely intertwined with the museum, both as its face to the public and its behind-the-scenes curator. Her retirement falls in the same category as Marin Alsop’s recent departure as music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

AVAM’s next director will be in charge of a museum that draws 100,000 to 125,000 visitors in a typical year and has 31 full- and part-time employees, 150 volunteers and an annual budget of $2.8 million to $3 million. Its 1.1-acre, three-building campus at 800 Key Highway, opened in 1995 and expanded in 2004, is part of Baltimore’s vaunted circle of Inner Harbor attractions.

Although it never set out to amass a huge permanent collection, the museum owns notable works by visionary artists such as Vollis Simpson, Gerald Hawkes and Andrew Logan, as well as works by Baltimore sculptor David Hess that are part of the architecture.

Artists Gerald Hawkes and Vollis Simpson on AVAM’s 1995 Opening Day. Photo by LeRoy Hoffberger.
Artists Gerald Hawkes and Vollis Simpson on AVAM’s 1995 Opening Day. Photo by LeRoy Hoffberger.

Besides occupying a key spot on Baltimore’s waterfront, AVAM plays an important role in American culture. The museum defines visionary art 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.”

In 1992, the U. S. Congress designated AVAM as a “national repository and educational center for visionary art.” It champions the role intuition plays in creative invention and innovation of all sorts – be it art, science, engineering, humor, or philosophy.

The museum caused “an international sensation” when it opened in 1995, said John Maizels, the founder of Raw Vision Magazine, a London-based publication dedicated to self-taught art.

“At the time, it was only the second museum in the world, and the first in the USA, to offer its visitors a glimpse into the incredible world of visionary and outsider art,” Maizels said.

“Its influence stretched far and wide, and since then, many museum departments in the U.S. have been specially dedicated to this unique field. AVAM still stands head and shoulders above other institutions in both scale and ambition, and its year-long thematic exhibitions are unrivaled in the world.”

European Union Ambassador Stavros Lambrinidis, another ardent AVAM supporter, said he was particularly impressed by the current exhibit, The Secret Life of Earth, which warns about the fragility of life on the planet.

“The exhibit did not just highlight in the most effective way the scale of the problem, it also opened our eyes to the creativity and innovative spirit we possess as humans to overcome it,” he said. “We left uplifted and empowered.”

As a curator, Hoffberger consistently comes up with new ways to inspire viewers and prompt them to take action, the ambassador said.

“Rebecca’s life’s work at AVAM has helped to raise our consciousness to new levels, to aim higher, and shows why we need to look at problems from all angles to come up with beautiful, inclusive solutions.”

AVAM’s impact doesn’t come solely from the art it features. Under Hoffberger’s direction, every exhibit has a strong focus on social justice and betterment, whether it’s about hunger or climate change, public health or sleep, or what makes us smile. That emphasis grows out of a cornerstone statement from Hoffberger that has become the museum’s credo: “Creative acts of social justice constitute life’s highest performance art.”

At AVAM, Hoffberger uses the works of art to connect the dots and build a narrative that entertains, informs and raises questions about subjects she believes deserve attention and further exploration. As Frankel puts it, she “present[s] complicated issues through art and humor.”

“I’ve never been interested in visionary art as object,” Hoffberger said. “I’m interested in visionary thought and inspiration, the connection back to the artist. It’s always the deeper question: Why are we here, and what it is to be a human being.”

AVAM typically mounts one major exhibit a year, opening in the fall, plus additional shows and events. Hoffberger has curated most of them, and they all have beguiling titles: “The Tree of Life,” “Wind In My Hair,” “The End Is Near,” “We Are Not Alone.”

Hoffberger says she curates the exhibits so they seem “like a play that you walk into.” She uses food analogies to describe her approach, likening works of art to nourishment: “I try to give a full meal, with a little something delicious for toddler to Nobel laureate. There’s so much to absorb with every show.” The cherry on the top would be the “captions” that accompany each exhibit, mini-essays that provide colorful biographies of the artists.

When visitors walk through the galleries, “they are seeing and experiencing the museum through the filter of my eyes,” Hoffberger said. “They’re reading the quotes I chose. They’re reading my text and insight into what I’m trying to express and what the artist is trying to express. It’s like they’re in my book. They’re walking through my words and my vision. It’s very intimate. A lot of my soul and DNA is there.”

Some of the museum’s permanent works are sculptures that can be seen for free on plazas outside the museum walls because Hoffberger wanted to offer something for people who can’t afford to pay admission to go inside. Many have a bird theme because birds represent the soul in ancient cultures, she says.

AVAM is also known for its events, from the Kinetic Sculpture Race and “Flicks on the Hill” to the July 4th Pet Parade and classes on making hand puppets on Sock Monkey Saturday. It offers free admission on Martin Luther King Junior’s birthday. This mix of art, science, philosophy and humor, filtered through the lens of social justice, is what sets AVAM apart, even from other museums that show outsider art.

AVAM also created an apprenticeship program to teach youths in the Maryland juvenile justice system how to install mosaics on the exterior of the main building, providing training that can lead to a career in construction. It leases its upper-level café space to restaurateurs who offer healthy food options. It hired talented Marylanders to design its buildings, rather than big-name firms from out of town, to keep the jobs local. And while some museums have only recently begun to highlight their efforts to support Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Access, AVAM has done that all along.

Aurora Borealis Mosaic Wall by youth apprentices of the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services with facilitator/artist Mari Gardner. Photo by Dan Myers.

Patrons have taken notice. AVAM regularly appears on local and national lists as a favorite or recommended place to go in Baltimore and Maryland.

In 2012, named it one of The World’s 10 Most Blinged-Out Buildings because of the shiny mosaics. For Pride month this year, named it the LGBTQ+ Best Hidden Gem in Maryland. This spring, members of the local American Institute of Architects chapter voted it the winner in its annual ‘Architecture Madness’ competition to name its favorite building. This month, The Baltimore Sun gave it two Readers’ Choice awards: Baltimore’s Best Museum/Gallery and Best Tourist Attraction.

Hoffberger has done it all with relatively little funding support from the city, considering the outsized amount of publicity and the high number of out-of-town visitors Baltimore gets for being the home of AVAM. She’s proud that AVAM has outlasted other local museums that started around the same time, including the Walt Disney-designed Columbus Center.

“Of the 13 cultural majors in the state, we perform with the smallest of all the budgets,” she said. “I think that’s a really interesting component of who we are and what we’ve done — what we’ve done with very limited money.”

Unfinished business

On November 20, the museum will host a “Farewell Fundraising Gala in Honor of Rebecca Alban Hoffberger.” On April 3, 2022, it will have a “Fan and Member Grassroots Celebration,” including a lecture by Hoffberger.

For now, Hoffberger says, there’s much she still wants to accomplish. She hopes to get a grant to restore Simpson’s Whirligig, exposed to the elements for the last 26 years. She wants to add a service elevator to the south side of the Jim Rouse Visionary Center, so caterers bringing in food are separate from VIP guests arriving for a banquet. She wants to make two top-level restrooms unisex.  She wants to increase the museum’s endowment, finish a virtual book of quotes from all the exhibits, and make sure the next two major shows are coming together. She’s narrating a retrospective of the museum’s history. She has her eye on another Andrew Logan sculpture for the permanent collection.

“I’m trying to get as much done as possible,” she said.

Hoffberger said she’s optimistic that once the word gets out about the search for her successor, the right candidate will emerge for AVAM – that “somebody out there,” as she puts it, will “recognize it as their true mothership.”

Besides m/Oppenheim, AVAM has an in-house search committee that consists of six board and staff members: Goelet, Stone, Peter Bain, Payal Parekh, Donna Katrinic, and Jenny Hopkins. Hoffberger said she’s comfortable leaving the final selection up to the full board: “I have great confidence that they really get what makes AVAM so magically meaningful and successful, and the right person born for the opportunity will be chosen.”

She’s happy that the museum she founded is so well received.

“I’ve been very naked about what I care most about with the museum, and I never imagined that it would become so beloved by so many people,” she said. “I know that what I like, and am interested in, could be somewhat of an odd duck. I’ve been very moved that people have taken it to heart to the degree that they have.”

Part Two: Wanted for the American Visionary Art Museum’s next director: A “polymath’ with a broad background, not just in art 

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Ed Gunts

Ed Gunts is a local freelance writer and the former architecture critic for The Baltimore Sun.