At first glance, the topics covered in a new exhibition at the American Visionary Art Museum sound as random as a dream.
There are references to the Dalai Lama, Madam Curie and Typhoid Mary. Portraits of white supremacists hang not far from photos of unsung heroes of public health. Two prosthetic legs are on display near a giant hairball taken from a little girl’s stomach. There’s a multi-colored dress with horse eyes on the breast, which we’re told, was crocheted by a patient at Sheppard Pratt.
Yet somehow it all comes together when narrated by Rebecca Alban Hoffberger, the founder, director and primary curator of the museum dedicated to showcasing the work of self-taught artists. She interweaves anecdotes like a blanket, threading together the stories of undercover reporter Nellie Bly and pop singer Britney Spears.
“I try to put out a banquet for people to read at almost every level,” she said, meandering through the halls. “You can’t be encyclopedic. It’s not a movie, it’s not a book. But you can just tastefully give some information that people can go away with.”
Entitled “Healing and the Art of Compassion (and the Lack Thereof!),” the exhibit opens Saturday and runs through next Labor Day. The show is the museum’s 26th large-scale exhibition since it opened in 1995 under the direction of Hoffberger and her husband, the late art collector and philanthropist LeRoy E. Hoffberger.
More than 25 years later, the exhibit will be Hoffberger’s last with the AVAM. She is set to retire early next year. The museum’s board is continuing its search for her successor.
While the AVAM has been mostly open since last year, Hoffberger said they have had reduced revenue in part from a loss of events during the pandemic. The adjacent sculpture barn has become a sought-after destination for weddings, which have been picking up again recently.
Hoffberger says the current show was inspired in part by a request from the Dalai Lama to the artist Jon Kolkin, whose photographs of Tibetan monks and religious sites appear in the collection.
The show does not include three pieces from the collection of comedian John Oliver. The Last Week Tonight host named the AVAM a winner of a $10,000 grant as part of an effort to support museums hurt by the pandemic.
“We won the contest out of almost 1000 museums,” she said.
The five grant winners also have the dubious honor of showcasing art selected by Oliver, including a portrait of talk show host Wendy William and another depicting anthropomorphic rats having sex. Those will arrive at the museum in November.
As she stood below a replica of a birdlike plague mask worn by doctors during the medieval era to stay safe from disease, Hoffberger said she hopes the item will remind visitors that masking during a plague is far from a new idea.
“I try to think like a person who doesn’t agree with me,” said Hoffberger. “What would they need to understand, to even consider some other reality?”
The same display tells the story of Typhoid Mary, with a subtle sermon buried underneath. Mary Mallon, famous for being an asymptomatic carrier of typhoid, “was pretty, she was young, she was gifted, she was energetic,” said Hoffberger. “You can have somebody be terribly contagious, who feels great themselves.”
Both stories have great resonance today. Nearby is a wood sculpture Hoffberger commissioned that depicts three saintly figures: a janitor, a nurse and a doctor. Above hangs a quote from Fred Rogers urging people to “look for the helpers” in times of tragedy.
In an adjacent room, various works pay tribute to unsung heroes of science and medicine, including Rosalind Franklin, who researchers say deserves credit for the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA. Another display honors the work of Abel Wolman, Baltimore’s pioneering water treatment expert who helped design the city’s plumbing system.
Also featured is elaborate matchstick art by Gerald Hawkes, whose ashes are interred in the museum’s garden.
The “unabashedly hopeful exhibition” concludes on a darker note. In one room are portraits of Adolph Hitler, Dylann Roof and other figures of white supremacy. Hoffberger said their presence was meant to show the dark implications for the lack of compassion at a time when support for neo-Nazi groups is rising in the U.S.
Hoffberger says she hopes people leave the exhibition understanding that, “If we had more compassion, we would actually be emotionally a richer, more peaceful country.”
If you go
Healing and the Art of Compassion (and the Lack Thereof!), Oct. 9 to Sept. 4, at the American Visionary Arts Museum, 800 Key Highway, Baltimore. 410-244-1900. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tickets are $10 for adults; $8 for seniors and $6 for children 7 and older. Admission is free for children age 6 and under. Purchase tickets online at avam.org. (Note: Due to the Baltimore Running Festival, the AVAM will open at 12 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 9.)