Rebecca Hoffberger feted, roasted in advance of her retirement as director of the American Visionary Art Museum

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Rebecca Hoffberger, co-founder and director of the American Visionary Art Museum, holds the William Donald Schaefer Visionary Tourism Award that she received during Visit Baltimore’s annual meeting at the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum on Thursday. Hoffberger will retire next spring. Photo by Ed Gunts.

American Visionary Art Museum director Rebecca Alban Hoffberger isn’t retiring until next spring, but friends and colleagues have already started saying farewell with two ceremonies that highlighted her contributions to Baltimore’s cultural scene and the art world in general.

On Thursday, Visit Baltimore presented Hoffberger with its William Donald Schaefer Visionary Tourism Award during the organization’s annual meeting at the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum.

On Saturday, she was roasted and honored by Baltimore filmmaker John Waters, UMBC president Freeman Hrabowski III and others during a 26th Anniversary Gala and Founder Farewell celebration that raised more than $300,000 for the museum.

“This is so much better than a funeral!” she told 230 guests at the event on Saturday.

Hoffberger, 69, announced in July that she plans to step down after 41 exhibitions to write a play, among other pursuits. She co-founded the museum with her husband, the late LeRoy Hoffberger, and has been the only director and primary curator in its history. April 3 will be her last day.

Between the two events last week, Hoffberger got to make her own observations about what it’s been like to produce meaningful exhibits while battling to keep the museum’s doors open in the midst of a pandemic with little financial support from the city or state governments.

Of the state’s major tourism attractions, speakers noted, AVAM gets the smallest amount of support from the Maryland State Arts Council. And yet it frequently tops lists such as The Baltimore Sun’s recent readers’ poll of Best Museum/Gallery and Best Tourist Attraction in Baltimore.

‘Are they nuts?’

“She’s done [all of the museum’s exhibits and events] with little financial help from the city,” Waters noted. “Are they nuts? Do they think tourists really come here for Fort McHenry? 125,000 admissions? That’s more than Blaze Starr got on The Block at the height of her career!”

Opened in 1995 and expanded in 2004, AVAM operates from a 1.1-acre campus at 800 Key Highway. Congress has designated it a “national repository and educational center for visionary art” which is defined as works “produced by self-taught individuals, usually without formal training” which arise form “an innate personal vision that revels foremost in the creative act itself.” The work has been called Outsider art.

What separates AVAM from other museums is the way its exhibits are presented. Rather than focusing on works of visionary art as objects unto themselves, Hoffberger curates exhibits that combine art, science, philosophy and humor, always with an underlying focus on social justice and betterment.

AVAM’s exhibits have explored themes ranging from hunger, public health and climate change to sleep, what makes us smile, and healing and the art of compassion. While other museums have only recently begun to call attention to their efforts to support diversity, equity, inclusion and access, AVAM has done it all along.

Hoffberger said on Saturday that she planned to retire a year ago but held off when the COVID-19 pandemic surfaced because she didn’t think it would be fair to the staff to bring in a new director when they couldn’t even meet in person.

She spent much of Saturday evening thanking guests and giving presents for their contributions over the years. Every guest got rose colored glasses to wear and a new book about AVAM, funded by developer Howard Brown and placed in every room of the Marriott at Metro Centre hotel he just opened in Owings Mills.

Baltimore filmmaker John Waters delivers a “non-roast” of American Visionary Art Museum director Rebecca Hoffberger on Saturday. Photo by Ed Gunts.

‘Crackpot curator’

Saturday’s gala featured a nearly 10-minute monologue by Waters, who had just returned from Poland, where he received his own tribute at the American Film Festival in Wroclaw.

Waters said the gala’s organizers wanted him to roast Hoffberger, but he couldn’t find it in himself to “say snarky things about her when she’s sitting right behind me, listening.” His talk was a mix of jokes, compliments and observations about her tenure at AVAM.

“She’s a hippie, the one who dresses like Glinda the Good Witch of Key Highway. The crackpot curator who loves artists but has never heard of Jackson Pollock or even Sotheby’s.”

He continued with his non-roast:

“She’s out of the box all right. She’s out to lunch, too. She didn’t even pay herself a salary for the first 16 years she worked here. That’s [eff-ing] crazy. She’s a tree-hugging, high-heeled, earth shoe, granola princess who believes in magic potions and healing. A dreamer-schemer who actually got her start as a mime, the lowest-level entry in show business. And so I can’t roast her. She’s an untouchable unicorn with control issues, but so what? She’s still our Outsider Queen.”

Somehow, Waters said, “Rebecca Hoffberger, against all odds, put together one of the coolest, hippest tourist attractions in Baltimore, the American Visionary Art Museum. The perfect destination address for artistic outcasts, minorities who don’t even fit in their own minorities and, yes, my fans, The Filthiest People Alive.”

The museum has outlasted many other attractions that opened in Baltimore during the 1980s and 1990s with more monetary support and more powerful boards, including the Walt Disney-designed “Hall of Exploration” at the Columbus Center and the Baltimore City Life Museums.

“Who would have predicted,” Waters said, “that her museum would have been one of the last ladies standing, so to speak, in the crown jewel once known as Harborplace?”

Much of the museums’ success, he said, is the artists who are featured there and the way their work is presented through thematic exhibits.

“She has been quoted as saying Typhoid Mary may have been contagious, but she herself felt great!” Waters said. “That is Rebecca. She shows great tenderness for artists who have been hurt, ostracized or locked out – that’s why it’s called an Outsider museum. And I know she hates that term, but I like it because Baltimore is an outsider city. Trump may have said we have rats and roaches here, but the outsiders Rebecca spotlights often find inspiration in these very same gutters.”

Hrabowski, who has a master’s degree in mathematics, said he marvels at the way Hoffberger’s exhibitions make connections between science and art.

“The key for me is this: that we rarely connect science, engineering, all the social sciences and the arts,” he said. “Well, she has said to us, we must learn how to connect these areas in different ways.”

At AVAM, “it’s all about those dreams, those connections,” he said. “We see things that are not normally seen. She always makes connections…Rebecca and this museum represent a place of healing, a place of struggling, a place of reflecting, of looking in the mirror, of asking the big questions, of believing in the possibilities, and of connections and of compassion. And for that Rebecca, we will always salute you.”

“Rebecca is truly an amazing person,” said former U. S. Senator Barbara Mikulski “What she wanted to make sure was that the outsiders had a place to come inside, and that’s what this museum’s all about.”

‘Another kind of family’

Hoffberger showed a preview of an hour-long retrospective by filmmaker and board member Arna Vodenos about AVAM’s mega-shows and permanent collection, and she reminisced about some of the celebrities who have visited, from South African cleric Desmond Tutu to actors Leonard Nimoy and Robin Williams.

“It’s a place where people come just to kind of think about what it is to be a human being,” not a star, she said.

She said she’ll miss the staffers, who have become like a family to her.

“Wherever you have worked, you realize that you spend more of your waking life with the people that you work next to than you do your own family,” she said. “That’s the reality in the kind of hours that we see, and they become another kind of special family.”

At one point, she joked that her formula for creating thematic exhibits was just a ruse to have fun.

“It allows us to use this museum as an ongoing scam to get on the phone with anyone, anywhere, that we have ever respected or admired and invite them in.”

Others at the gala were: Stavros Lambrinidis, Ambassador of the European Union to the United States; Johns Hopkins epidemiology professor Chris Beyrer, representing Tutu; U. S. Representative Charles “Dutch” Ruppersberger; author and historian Taylor Branch; Maryland Institute College of Art president Samuel Hoi; and MICA past president Fred Lazarus IV.

Also, artists Betty Cooke, David Hess, Nancy Josephson, Patty Kuzbida, Brian Pardini, Pat Bernstein and Bobby Adams; AVAM architects Rebecca Swanston and Diane Cho; Maryland Horse Industry Board executive director Ross Peddicord; developer Ted Rouse; real estate broker Cindy Conklin, and State Senate President Bill Ferguson. Dozens more were watching on Zoom from England, France and other countries.

Schaefer award

The Schaefer Visionary award was presented by Visit Baltimore President and CEO Al Hutchinson and “Mama” Rashida Forman-Bey, artist, activist and co-founder of WombWork Productions.

With AVAM, Hoffberger “has helped all of us to understand the sacredness of art,” Forman-Bey said.

“It is so wonderful to be in a sea of people who do their best all the time to make Baltimore a place that can welcome everyone in, and you do it so very well,” Hoffberger said. “To Al and his team, I have loved over these 26 years working with you.”

She also addressed the museum’s funding situation.

“You may think that we had a buttload of money to do what we do,” she said. “But actually, the American Visionary Art Museum, of the state of Maryland’s 13 top or considered major cultural institutions, has the very smallest budget of them all. Last year with 31 employees, our budget was down to $2.8 million. And here’s the bragging part: But yet, we have won, repeatedly, Best Museum, Best Tourist Attraction, Best Architecture for the first time this year…We’ve had to do miracles with very, very modest funding.”

She offered some advice for operators of other attractions and destinations working to recover from the pandemic.

“I know that I’m not unique and that many in this room don’t know how they can make ends meet particularly…in this time of challenge but also of promise,” she said. “I’m going to give you just a little hint: I want you to leave here as people who are really a SWAT team for tourism and go back to your childhood. What were the places you visited that are carved on your heart? What were the experiences that you had — be it in nature, be it in a city, be it in a foreign land, be it in your backyard — that have really nurtured you? And if you’re faithful, you’ll always be successful sharing what you love.

“There’s a beautiful quote I love that says: ‘Stay close to anything that makes you glad you’re alive.’ So when you do that, when you really say, what were those experiences, even when I was little kid, that opened your eyes and made you so delighted that you squealed, those things will serve you in your own institutions. Share that, and share similar qualities for the next generations to come.”

Back at the gala on Saturday, Hoffberger said AVAM is seeking to raise $2.5 million for a “thematic curator fund” to support the continuance of its formula of combining art, science, humor, philosophy and social justice in its exhibits. “I think we will get there,” she said. “We have just been amazed” by the support so far.

For a museum that’s known for always finding just the right quote from others to make a point in an exhibit, she provided a quote of her own, one that has been her mantra since AVAM opened.

“The one quote I leave behind as my own is my belief, as a cornerstone of this museum, that creative acts of social justice constitute life’s highest performance art, because it’s very difficult to make palpable, real change in the world,” she said. “That, you have to be ferociously creative to be able to accomplish.”

John Waters’ non roast of Rebecca Hoffberger

Here is a transcript of John Waters’ non-roast of Rebecca Hoffberger:

They tell me I’m supposed to get up here and roast my friend Rebecca Hoffberger. I would hate that somebody roasts me. So I can’t do that. I can’t say snarky things about her when she’s sitting right behind me listening. I mean, I love that crazy bitch. She’s a hippie, the one who dresses like Glinda the Good Witch of Key Highway. The crackpot curator who loves artists but has never heard of Jackson Pollock or even Sotheby’s.

She’s out of the box all right. She’s out to lunch, too. She didn’t even pay herself a salary for the first 16 years she worked here. That’s fucking crazy. She’s a tree-hugging, high-heeled, earth shoe, granola princess who believes in magic potions and healing A dreamer-schemer who actually got her start as a mime, the lowest-level entry in show business. And so I can’t roast her. She’s an untouchable unicorn with control issues, but so what? She’s still our Outsider Queen.

Somehow, Rebecca Hoffberger, against all odds, put together one of the coolest, hippest tourist attractions in Baltimore, the American Visionary Art Museum. The perfect destination address for artistic outcasts, minorities who don’t even fit in their own minorities and, yes, my fans, The Filthiest People Alive.

‘Put together’ is not exactly the right word. She gave birth to this place. Push. Push. She did more than that. She willed this place into existence. Who would have predicted that her museum would have been one of the last ladies standing, so to speak, in the crown jewel once known as Harborplace?

She has been known as saying Typhoid Mary may have been contagious, but she herself felt great! That is Rebecca. She shows great tenderness for artists who have been hurt, ostracized or locked out – that’s why it’s called an Outsider museum. And I know she hates that term, but I like it because Baltimore is an outsider city. Trump may have said we have rats and roaches here, but the outsiders Rebecca spotlights often find inspiration in these very same gutters.

Baltimore used to have an inferiority complex but not anymore. The City That Breeds. Harm City. Be Evil. All our slogans got parodied, but not AVAM’s. They said it best. We are proud to be self-taught. Proud to cause trouble. And yes, we can laugh at ourselves — as long as we do it first.

Rebecca was always inclusive, but not always 100 percent politically correct. She has said she tries to think like a person who doesn’t agree with her when she argues. She knows, like I do, that gay is not enough. It’s a good start. She has said that she doesn’t think sexual orientation, color or religion conveys complete quality of character or that women are superior just because they have a vagina. She just wants magnificent souls, no matter what human form they may take.

What great choices Rebecca has made. Divine, watching down on all of us in that great sculpture by Andrew Logan. An exterior designed architecturally like no other in the world. Exhibitions like The Tree of Life, Wind in My Hair and The End Is Near. She’s done them all with little financial help from the city. Are they nuts? Do they think tourists really come here for Fort McHenry? 125,000 admissions? That’s more than Blaze Starr got on The Block at the height of her career!

Come to Baltimore and be shocked, I used to say, which should be the city’s bumper sticker. But now there’s no need. AVAM implies that just by their programming. And my God. the museum’s gift shop, called Sideshow, curated by Ted Frankel? Who needs to go holiday shopping anywhere else?

Rebecca’s retiring. To do what? A playwright, I hear. That’s great news. ‘A Streetcar Named the Number Eight’ at Everyman. ‘Rat on a Hot Tin Roof’ at Center Stage. ‘Who’s Afraid of Hogan’s Budget Cuts?’ at the Hippodrome.

What else could Rebecca do? She’d be a great warden at Patuxent, the treatment oriented maximum security correctional facility in Jessup. Or a social worker at Maryland Reform School, to teach angry teenagers to paint their future crimes – draw them, sculpt them, just don’t do them!

The board is looking for a replacement for Rebecca. Good luck. Aimee Semple McPherson is no longer available. Saint Dymphna, the patron saint of mental disorders, is stuck in Catholic history. How about Judy Clarke’s stand-in? She’s the famous defense lawyer who specializes in getting her filthy clients life in prison, instead of the death penalty. Or Sister Helen’s replacement, the anti-capital punishment nun. I bet she knows some great undiscovered self-taught artists.

Rebecca, you are a visionary yourself. And your passion, obsession and leadership will be greatly missed. I salute you. And now, you jumped me from what I was going to say, in your speech, but I’m going to continue mine. She is the only museum director who not only remembers but knew details on the first so-called outsider artist I knew in society.

His name was Bumblebee and he was a patient at Rosewood Asylum. That’s what they called it then. And he was let out every year to go, quote, work the privileged family crowd at the Hunt Cup horse race. There he’d be, cutting out paper silhouettes of children for their nervous parents. BZZZ BZZZ BZZZ Bumblebee. I wasn’t scared. I loved him! God I wish I still had the silhouette he did of me. Rebecca, nobody can take your place. But whoever does get the job, please tell them about Bumblebee. He deserves a retrospective.



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