I love those times when I know precisely how to proceed. When starting the “Audacious Ideas” series dedicated to the Little Patuxent Review 2012 Summer Audacity issue, there was no doubt what I wanted to feature first: the American Visionary Art Museum and the remarkable founder, director and principal curator, Rebecca Alban Hoffberger. Not only was the AVAM established on the basis of a bold, new approach to bringing visual art to the public but the daring that represented was also embodied by Hoffberger herself.
Hoffberger was born in 1952 in a pleasant middle-class suburb of Baltimore. At 15, she was accepted to college but opted to travel to Paris, where she had been invited to become Marcel Marceau’s first American apprentice. By 19, she had co-founded a ballet company. By 21, served as a consultant to a wide range of nonprofits. At 25, she was appointed a dame, the female equivalent of knighthood in the British honors system, for her work in establishing field hospitals in Nigeria. Subsequently, she studied alternative and folk medicine in Mexico.
Back in Baltimore as Development Director at Sinai Hospital for People Encouraging People, a nonprofit helping psychiatric patients return to the community, she was drawn to the imaginative artwork some of the patients there produced. Her interest increased with a visit to the Musée de l’Art Brut in Lausanne, Switzerland, where the art of insane asylum inmates was displayed. Such influences eventually coalesced into a coherent concept for a national visionary art museum and education center.
Visionary art, according to a piece on Hoffberger in The New York Times, is regarded as one of the last uncharted fields for contemporary dealers and collectors. It “celebrates the work of self-taught artists whose primitive, naïve style, often studded with found objects, springs from a personal rather than a commercial vision. L’art brut, as the French artist Jean Dubuffet coined it: raw art.” How the AVAM concept of visionary art was realized is best described by Hoffberger herself. So, here’s what she has to say:
As Dervish philosopher and poet Rumi put it, “Conventional thinking is the ruin of our souls, something borrowed we mistake as our own.” There is actually very little fresh thinking in this whole, wide world, and what does exist may not necessarily be tied to blessing, real need or even viability. Audacity for its own sake isn’t enough.
In the effort to birth something bold and new, one must be coupled to meeting real need, to a vision for evolutionary innovation, not just making change for change’s sake. One must also be willing to be thought the fool. Really. Let us invoke Voltaire, who rightly observed, “It is dangerous to be right in matters on which established authorities are wrong.” Oscar Wilde, an audacious guy who paid dearly, cautioned, “If you are going to tell people the truth, make them laugh or else they will kill you.”
When I thought up the American Visionary Art Museum back in 1984, a new Baltimore City cultural “major” had not emerged in over 60 years. There were fears that establishing “The Visionary” would only serve to further divide the small “cultural pie” of available funding. So I sought out nontraditional arts funders and even went as far as bringing over $1.5 million in new funds from a truly audacious London-based source, Body Shop founder Dame Anita Roddick.
Birthing is easy; sustaining is a bitch. One must be faithful to the clear vision of founding essence while remaining audacious in the constant invigoration and endless creative enfoldment of that vision. I find that I like most of the “‘cious” words: precious, delicious, luscious, bodacious, tenacious, judicious and even conscious–but never vicious. May we be more audacious in generating the myriad ideas and actions needed to transform and delight ourselves, others and our swiftly depleting world.
American Visionary Art Museum’s Seven Educational Goals
1. Expand the definition of a worthwhile human life.
2. Engender respect for and delight in the gifts of others.
3. Increase awareness of the wide variety of choices available in life for all, particularly students.
4. Encourage each individual to build upon his or her special knowledge and inner strengths.
5. Promote the use of innate intelligence, intuition, self-exploration and creative self-reliance.
6. Confirm the great hunger for finding out just what each of us can do best, in our own voice, at any age.
7. Empower the individual to choose to do that something really, really well.
The AVAM opened on November 24, 1995 with a budget of $1.1 million, operated by a staff of seven with a collection of 1500 objects, most of which Hoffberger had donated. These days, it boasts a collection of 4000 objects–including works by Ho Baron, Nek Chand, Ted Gordon, Clyde Jones, Leo Sewell, Vollis Simpson and Ben Wilson–as well as over 40 pieces from the Cabaret Mechanical Theatre of London, runs with a staff of 18, operates on a budget of $2.3 million and attracts some 70,000 visitors annually.
When the AVAM received the 1998 Urban Land Institute Award of Excellence, A. Eugene Kohn, a member of the selection committee, said, “The whole place speaks of creativity and excitement, but it also speaks of her [Hoffberger’s] passion. It’s one of those rare times when you’re not only impressed with the place but the person behind it.”
If you haven’t had the pleasure of visiting the AVAM to see what he means, here’s a little preview. Just click on the image to activate and control the slide show. And enjoy!