Britons set sights on visionary art Body Shop owners may donate $3 million to Baltimore museum


Planners of the country's first museum devoted to "visionary art" are hoping for a $3 million donation from the wealthy owners of a British cosmetics chain to enable them to begin building the $7.5 million project at the foot of Federal Hill.

Rebecca Alban Hoffberger, president of the American Visionary Art Museum, told Baltimore's Planning Commission yesterday that Gordon and Anita Roddick, founders of the Body Shop cosmetics chain, may give $3 million to help build the museum in and around the old Trolley Works building at Key Highway and Covington Street.

She said the Roddicks are exploring the tax consequences of such a donation, which would be one of the largest ever made for a local museum or an Inner Harbor development.

"They love the project, but they get no tax incentives for donating $3 million," she told the commission. "We hope to know whether they will be able to work it out by June 30."

Visionary art is the art produced by self-taught individuals independent of the influence of mainstream art. Visionary or "outsider" artists are driven by their own impulses to create, according to the museum, and their work is often "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.

Ms. Hoffberger said artists often use "found objects," such as soda can tops or match sticks or eggshells. In some cases, the works can be large.

The potential donation from the Roddicks would bring to $6.4 million the amount raised for the 33,000-square-foot museum.

Ms. Hoffberger said the museum board already has raised $3.4 million in public and private funds, including $800,000 from the state, and a $2 million pledge from the Zanvyl and Isabelle Krieger Fund. The non-profit museum is seeking at least $6 million before beginning construction.

If the Roddicks' donation comes through, she said, the museum board hopes to begin construction this fall and complete work in 15 to 18 months.

In any case, she said, the board will continue to raise the money needed to fund the museum fully. "The level of interest in this project, particularly from Europe, is tremendous," she told the commission.

Although nearly a dozen museums in Europe feature visionary art, Baltimore's would be the first in North America, she said.

Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a 3rd District Democrat, and Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski have introduced legislation that would make the project the official national museum of visionary art, just as Baltimore's aquarium is designed the "national aquarium."

After hearing Ms. Hoffberger's testimony, the Planning Commission voted unanimously to approve the final subdivision and development plan for the museum.

City officials agreed in 1989 to make the curving Trolley Works building on Key Highway available to house the project. But the original plan called for the building's roof to become a sculpture garden, and that drew opposition from Federal Hill residents, who did not want to set a precedent of allowing sculpture on roofs.

City officials subsequently agreed to made available more city property farther south of the Trolley Works building to display the sculptures that were to go on the roof. Revised plans call for a brick whiskey warehouse that dates from the 1890s to be converted to a "sculpture barn" and for a 1950s-era building west of it to be razed to make way for an outdoor sculpture garden.

Rebecca Swanston and Alex Castro of Baltimore are the design architects, and Davis, Bowen & Friedel of Salisbury are the project architects.

Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream Inc., a group that trains and employs disabled people for its restaurants, will operate the museum cafe.

Optimistic that funds would come through, the museum board recently put construction documents out for bids for general contractors.

Ms. Hoffberger said that, in retrospect, the neighborhood opposition to the rooftop sculpture garden turned out to be a blessing in disguise because it resulted in a larger and better project.

She praised representatives of the Baltimore Development Corp. for guiding her through the review processes.

"We've had nothing but cooperation from everybody," she said.

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