Jenenne Whitfield, who fought Detroit’s City Hall on behalf of self-taught artists — and won — was appointed Wednesday as the second director of the American Visionary Art Museum.
Whitfield, 60, president and CEO of Detroit’s acclaimed Heidelberg Project, will start her new job Sept. 6. She will succeed the museum’s founder, Rebecca Alban Hoffberger, who is stepping down April 3 after 27 years at AVAM’s helm. Whitfield, who is Black, was selected from a diverse pool of more than 140 applicants.
“It would be silly to pretend there aren’t butterflies in my stomach at the thought of succeeding Rebecca,” said Whitfield, adding that she didn’t apply for the job but was nominated by someone else.
Even as Whitfield’s candidacy advanced, she initially wasn’t interested in leaving Detroit, where she was born and raised. That changed after officials allowed her to tour the museum alone.
“I spent three hours inside, and the rest is history,” she said. “The way Rebecca had assembled the collection of works spoke so strongly to me. It made me understand exactly what she stood for.
“I thought, ‘I believe I can bring something to this museum.’”
Museum officials said that between April and September, AVAM will be run by Donna Katrinic, the museum’s chief financial officer. Hoffberger, 69, will remain at AVAM part time through the summer to help with the transition.
When the board appointed Whitfield, “I really physically felt a weight go off my shoulders,” Hoffberger said.
“Jenenne is so sincere and respectful of what we do and who we are that her appointment is like an answer to prayer. I have enormous peace with her choice as my successor,” she said. “I prayed the board would find someone who would be even better than me, and I think we’ve found that in her.”
Established in 1995, AVAM is dedicated to showcasing works created by self-taught, visionary and intuitive artists, many of whom are homeless, imprisoned or mentally ill. AVAM has an operating budget of $3.1 million in 2022 and an annual attendance of about 115,000.
The Heidelberg Project in Detroit is a mostly outdoor museum that was founded in 1986 by the artist Tyree Guyton, who later became Whitfield’s husband. The Project had an annual budget this year of about $1.4 million and has about 200,000 visitors each year.
Christopher Goelet, chairman of AVAM’s board, said the search committee was keenly aware that hiring a successor to a founding visionary is a high-stakes undertaking.
“People have felt that AVAM was a reflection of Rebecca’s vision,” he said.
“They were concerned that if Rebecca wasn’t there, AVAM might not survive. That has occasionally hampered us when we tried to raise money for the endowment. The board shared some of that fear early on, but we got over it when we saw the quality of the candidates who applied.”
Goelet hopes that during Whitfield’s tenure, AVAM will mount two new themed exhibits a year instead of just one. He thinks the new director can help AVAM forge additional institutional relationships in Baltimore and beyond.
“Rebecca is a very strong leader,” he said. “She does expect people to follow and not go off in a different direction.
“Because AVAM has a legacy in outsider art, people in the education department have not always felt encouraged to reach out to MICA [the Maryland Institute College of Art] or other places in the art world. I would like to see more collaborations with other Baltimore institutions.”
For more than a quarter century, Hoffberger devoted her life to the museum. For the first 14 years, she wasn’t paid a salary. In return, the board allowed Hoffberger wide latitude to make decisions about such matters as acquisitions and loans. Occasionally, board members learned of new initiatives when plans were already underway.
“When Jenenne is director,” Goelet said, “the board will more closely resemble the boards that operate most museums.”
Like Hoffberger, Whitfield came to museum work from a nontraditional background. Instead of enrolling in college, Hoffberger went to Paris to study mime with the legendary Marcel Marceau. Whitfield attended Wayne State University from 1988 to 1995, but left without her degree to take a job in banking.
But both had minds attuned to alternative fields of knowledge.
Hoffberger studied traditional healing practices in Mexico in the 1970s and now has a fistful of honorary doctorate degrees from American universities. Whitfield was certified as a doctor of divinity in 2004 from the California-based Institute of Divine Metaphysical Research.
Whitfield has been listening to her inner voice since June 1993 when she turned her car onto Detroit’s Heidelberg street.
“An artist had taken over an entire street of mostly abandoned houses and transformed it into a giant work of art. Even the street was painted,” she said.
One house was painted white and decorated with giant polka dots. Another had stuffed animals sitting on window ledges and dangling from the rafters. A tree was festooned with clocks.
Whitfield was fascinated. Within a year, she quit her job as a corporate loan officer and was helping Guyton follow his vision, which over time, sprawled over roughly three city blocks.
“I always said that Tyree was an artist with a big dream, but he built a house without a foundation under it,” Whitfield said. “My job was to build that foundation.”
It wasn’t easy. City officials and many neighbors were openly hostile to an art project using salvaged materials, fearing it would hamper development in the blighted community.
Twice, Detroit officials demolished parts of Guyton’s work: in 1991 and 1999. Then, in 2013, a series of arson fires destroyed several homes in the project.
Guyton and Whitfield didn’t give up. At the time, the Heidelberg Project was winning impressive accolades. It was featured twice on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and in such publications as The New York Times and Time magazine.
The couple believed that if they explained what they were trying to accomplish and treated the neighbors and city officials with respect, they could find common ground.
“Jenenne has a really good way of working with people, and she softened the tension,” said Mame Jackson, former chairwoman of Wayne State University’s art department. “She can make a point and make it strongly, but makes it with a sensitivity to the person she’s speaking to.”
One example: A neighboring family was so opposed to the Heidelberg Project that they complained about it loudly from their front porch to passersby. Whitfield visited the family to listen to their concerns.
“Originally, they thought the Heidelberg Project was trash,” Jackson said. “Now, they embrace it as a community art project. They have painted their house, too, and they found a way to make a business out of it. You can pay them to put your autograph on their house.”
Last fall, the Heidelberg Project was honored with a lifetime achievement award from Detroit’s Office of Arts, Culture and Entrepreneurship.
“Jenenne helped them think about what they needed in that neighborhood and then they worked together,” Jackson said. “She’s a peacemaker.”