The American Visionary Art Museum. Photo courtesy AVAM.

By Ed Gunts

Will AVAM’s next director be someone from the art museum world, or from outside the art museum world? From the current staff? From Baltimore or beyond?

Can any one person fill current director Rebecca Hoffberger’s shoes or should the position be split to be two co-directors – one to oversee the business side and one in charge of the creative side?

Those are some of the questions the board will have to address now that Hoffberger, the founder and only director in the museum’s 26-year history, disclosed she plans to retire in March of 2022.

The museum’s board of directors is working with a nationally prominent search firm, m/Oppenheim Executive Search, to help identify AVAM’s next director. It also has a six-member committee consisting of museum board and staff members to make a recommendation to the full board.

Although the search is in the early stages, board members say they have an idea of what traits they will and won’t be looking for when considering candidates to replace Hoffberger. 

Based on interviews with Board Chair Christopher Goelet, board officer Holly Gudelsky Stone and Hoffberger, one of the most important traits they want in a new director is a broad range of interests and experiences.

Because AVAM isn’t solely a museum about art, but a museum that combines art, science, philosophy and humor with a focus on social justice and betterment, current leaders say, they’re looking for someone who is well-rounded and knowledgeable about a variety of subjects. Both Goelet and Hoffberger used the word ‘polymath,’ meaning “a person of wide-ranging knowledge or learning.”

Conversely, AVAM isn’t looking for someone with a traditional art, arts management or art history background. Hoffberger had never worked at a museum before opening AVAM in 1995. She had many different jobs and experiences that broadened her perspective on art and life, from studying mime in Paris with Marcel Marceau to working at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore. She made it clear that she wouldn’t be looking for someone who studied only art or worked only in the art museum world.

“It’s really great to be with people who have a wide life experience,” she said in an interview. “I sure don’t want somebody who wanted to be a curator and got an art history degree at Williams and is now looking to try to be in New York. What could be duller?”

For the AVAM position, specialization in art or art history may even be a drawback. Hoffberger spoke glowingly about people she knows in the fields of science, medicine and the humanities. She said she wouldn’t want someone whose resume consists of nothing but art museum jobs.

“I would not be interested in people whose main or exclusive interest is art,” she said. “Even if somebody was a really smart architect, I would want them to be really knowledgeable maybe about plants and forests or some other thing, other than ‘I studied with X-Y-Z and then I did my dissertation on A-B-C.’ No. I would want them to have much more that they would bring to the table than regurgitation. They must be passionately curious, know how to have fun, and sincerely love people.”

Though she visits and lectures at places such as the Tate Modern in London and the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Hoffberger said, she isn’t always impressed by most of the contemporary art she sees.  “The contemporary world, I find often very one-dimensional and too often market- versus heart-driven.”

Goelet expressed a desire to consider applicants who have a record of accomplishment. He said the board is looking for someone who will be the creative force behind the museum as opposed to the main financial or administrative officer, because the museum already has a strong chief financial officer and chief operating officer, and that frees the director to devote more time to the curatorial side.

Goelet acknowledged that it would be good for the next director to have some familiarity with art museums. But when asked whether the next director is likely to come from the art museum world, he indicated that’s not a requirement.

In considering candidates for this position, “the creative side trumps everything to do with job experience,” he said. “Maybe ‘creative’ is the job experience. I really wouldn’t mind which part of the world this person came from, which part of expertise. But I would want some evidence of their creativity. They have to have done something in the past that you can measure them against. But it doesn’t have to be in the museum world. It absolutely does not.”

 One option, Goelet said, may be to divide the director’s job into two positions, one focusing on the administration side and one on the curatorial side. It’s a model that works for many museums around the country, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Baltimore has gone this route before, famously bringing in former U. S. Navy captain Nicholas Brown to head the National Aquarium even though he knew next to nothing about fish and didn’t really even like them. Because of his gregarious personality and curiosity about all things, Brown turned out to be one of the most popular directors Baltimore’s aquarium ever had.

Will the next director come from AVAM’s current staff? That’s unlikely, because the museum doesn’t have anyone who has been groomed for the job. Hoffberger said she has a young protégé on her staff, a MICA graduate whom she has been mentoring and whom she believes has “the chops” to do great things one day soon. But she said she would like to see her immediate replacement be even more of a polymath than she is. If someone is that much on the ball, she said, it would be unfair to force them to wait in the wings until the top position opens up.

Other characteristics the board is looking for in the next director:

Someone who won’t treat the job as a steppingstone: AVAM isn’t looking for someone who sees the director’s position as a rung to another job in another city. The directors want someone who is willing to spend the rest of his or her career at AVAM, just as Hoffberger did.

“I don’t want it to be somebody who’s just using it as a steppingstone,” Hoffberger said. “AVAM is a precious rare jewel. We’ve accomplished something great over and over again, distinguishing it at a national and even international level.”

“We’re definitely looking for somebody with staying power,” Goelet said. “It’s not going to be somebody who’s looking for a notch on their resume. That person, you’ll smell them out very quickly. They won’t have the passion that you’re looking for.”

Pro-Baltimore and Pro-Maryland: Although AVAM has been designated by Congress as a national educational center and repository for visionary art, and features works by artists from many different places, Hoffberger said she hopes the next director will want to keep Baltimore and Maryland in the forefront, developing programs and activities that will appeal to both a national audience and the local community. That requires a good knowledge of Baltimore’s quirks and assets, or a willingness to learn fast.

Hoffberger said she’s proud that she used local designers Rebecca Swanston, Alex Castro and Diane Cho for various phases of the museum, rather than big names from out of town.

“We didn’t just get a good result,” she said. “We were the first museum in the country to win the prestigious National Award for Excellence from the Urban Land Institute, against a national field. What I want people to hear is: Keep that Maryland taxpayer money here.”

Someone with passion for the job: Although no one can be expected to match Hoffberger’s warmth or charisma, the museum wants a director who can be the public face of the museum, a personable leader who is just as comfortable meeting with the latest winner of the Kinetic Sculpture Race as he or she is with prospective donors and celebrities. They’d love to have someone with Hoffberger’s spirit and verve. Above all, they want someone who will be passionate about the museum and its mission, and able to get others excited about it too.

A born salesperson: The board wants a leader who can help build up the museum’s endowment, so it’s in a better position to survive slow periods such as the recent COVID 19 lockdown, and so it won’t have to rely so much on public funding. Hoffberger said people see that AVAM wins awards for being the best museum or the best tourism attraction and think it doesn’t need financial support, but that’s not the case.

Someone who knows how to appeal to a young audience: The museum is ideally looking for someone who can appeal to a young audience, has a finger on the pulse of what young people are interested in, and likely will be in the job for a long time. Hoffberger points to the Meow Wolf organization in Santa Fe as one group that seems to have found a way to appeal to young audiences and also present substantive exhibits. 

Someone who will build on what’s in place, rather than try to take AVAM in a radically different direction. Hoffberger recalls the uproar at the history-centered Walters Art Museum in the early 1990s, when a search committee replacing Robert Bergman chose a candidate who wanted to introduce contemporary art to the collection.  The Walters board ultimately withdrew its offer but had to pay the candidate, Michael Mezzatesta, an undisclosed sum to avoid a lawsuit.

A big thinker: Hoffberger said she’d like her replacement to be someone who is even more talented, creative and energetic than she is, a director who brings even more to the museum than she does: “I really want them to come in with more strength than I have,” she said. “I want them coming in having already done amazingly inventive things.”

 Sense of humor: Goelet said he’d like to find someone who has the ability to make people smile, or at least respond in a positive way, as much as Hoffberger can.

“The art world is not good at laughing at itself,” he said. “I love the fact that Rebecca has always got a smile and a chuckle. Even though it may be a really grim story you’re talking about, she’ll have a smile about something in the person’s past or a piece of art that’s there, that will make you enjoy it more. I find that remarkable, that side of enjoying it so much.”