BUILDING A MUSEUM FOR VISIONARY ART Hoffberger's visionary plans are meeting with success


She has raised $2 million and hopes to have another $4 million soon, but she gets no salary, has no stationery with a letterhead, and her headquarters consists of two un-air-conditioned rooms in the garage building of Harbor Court, for which she pays "less than $290 a month rent."

Is this any way to run a museum?

It is if you're Rebecca Hoffberger, and the American Visionary Art Museum is your dream. For several years Hoffberger, now 38, has been working to open the first museum in the Western Hemisphere devoted to visionary or outsider art. There are, she says, "a dozen" such museums in Europe devoted to outsider art, notably the one founded in Lausanne, Switzerland, by artist Jean Dubuffet, who called this work "art brut" or "raw art." But there is none in the Americas, and by opening the first one Hoffberger hopes to add a major attraction to Baltimore and attract a major collection drawn from collectors, hospitals and artists.

What is visionary art? It's hard to find a definition that isn't either too broad or too narrow. A proposal drawn up by Hoffberger for her museum contains this statement: "Visionary art is the art produced by self-taught individuals independent of the influence of mainstream art. The visionary or 'outsider' artist is driven by his or her own internal impulses to create. The visual product is a striking personal statement possessing a powerful, often spiritual quality. Prominent among the creators of visionary art are the mentally ill, the disabled, and the elderly. Their art exemplifies the human capacity to overcome difficulty through creative response."

There was Martin Ramirez, for instance, born in Mexico in 1885, who immigrated to this country, became disoriented, was placed in a mental hospital in 1930. He began to draw obsessively on anything he could find, from envelopes to paper cups, putting the bits and pieces together to make artworks up to 9 feet long. He produced about 300 works before he died in 1960. A Ramirez has brought as much as $180,000.

There was Myrellen, diagnosed as schizophrenic and kept in a hospital for the insane in Tennessee. Using ravelings from rags, she created a coat, a scarf and a dress which told the story of her life including childhood scenes and events of the day.

There is Christine McCormick, committed to Springfield State Hospital as a teen and diagnosed as both mentally ill and mentally retarded. She developed a technique of pointillist painting by taking all but two or three hairs out of her brush. Now living independently, she continues to paint in her characteristic style.

Well-known outsider artists also include Frank Jones, imprisoned for killing the woman who raised him, who made "devil house" drawings shown widely in America and Europe; and Howard Finster, a visionary preacher and artist whose works were given a New York exhibit organized by the Museum of American Folk Art.

Hoffberger emphasizes that visionary art does not have to originate from some sort of disability, such as mental illness. "Disability is in no way a criterion," she says. "We don't want to say art is more valuable because of a handicap."

Hoffberger conceived of AVAM during the 1980s when she worked as development director for People Encouraging People, private organization devoted to helping the mentally ill. About a year and a half ago she launched a campaign to raise money for the project.

So far, of the $6 million projected cost of building, furnishing and opening the museum, the Baltimore native has raised $2 million in gifts, including a pledge of up to $1 million from the Zanvyl

and Isabelle Krieger Fund, a local foundation.

The next big funding step is a $2 million bond appropriation being sought from the state. While times are hard, Hoffberger hopes for the full amount of the request because she does not expect to keep going back to the state for funds. "We will launch another $5 million campaign for endowment, and we are not asking [the state] for anything for that. And we are not expecting to ask for operating expenses."

Sen. Barbara Hoffman, D-Baltimore, sponsor of the bill in the Maryland Senate, has doubts about getting the full $2 million because the bond bill would have to come out of "a pool of money, about $15 or $16 million for [such] worthy projects . . . [and] that money gets divided up, some cultural, some hTC educational, not all one type of grant." But, she says, "I hope they'd get at least a million."

Hoffberger hopes that a funding push this year, including a request to the Kresge Foundation, which funds capital projects, will enable groundbreaking before the end of this year with the opening "in late 1992 or early 1993."

She looks forward to building a major collection of American outsider art, but adding to the permanent collection is not the highest priority right now, partly because of costs of insuring and housing the works.

AVAM already has, however, the 1,200-work collection of the late psychiatrist Otto Billig, who studied the art of mental patients.

Other parts of the AVAM collection include works by such well-known outsiders as Ramirez, Jones and Finster, as well as works of local artists including the objects made entirely of matchsticks by Gerald Hawkes.

Another source of art will be mental hospitals. "We have direct access to more than sufficient volume of art from state institutions from all over the U.S.," says an AVAM statement, "due to our designation by NIMH [National Institutes of Mental Health] and U.S. Public Health officials as the national repository of the best of this self-taught art, created within their walls over the last 100 years." Neal Brown, director of NIMH's community support program, says, "We have tried to make connections with hospitals where there may be art. Where we're aware of such work we have tried to keep her apprised."

The museum will not only house a permanent collection, however. Its public space, on three indoor levels plus a roof garden, will include gallery space for the exhibition of the permanent collection and temporary shows, a theater/classroom, library, shop and a cafe where "we will train high-functioning people with handicaps to work with the non-handicapped in food preparation and service," Hoffberger says.

When somebody comes up with an idea such as AVAM, the usual question is, "Will it work?" But the question about this museum might be, "Will it work too well?" Suppose it catches on, and attracts a large collection? Might it outgrow in a few years its site and its hard-to-expand 25,000-square-foot building, of which 7,000 square feet will be gallery space and another 3,000 the roof garden?

The whole point, says Hoffberger, is to keep the museum small, with an opening budget of $500,000 to $700,000 a year and a core staff of seven full-time employees. "We don't want to have a tremendous reserve of art," she says, and as for expanding, "I think the Phillips [a small gallery with a major collection of modern art in Washington] lost something when it expanded. If we have to expand we'll make a different building someplace else in Maryland."

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