Baltimore's Visionary New Museum


Baltimore is about to get its newest museum, the brainchild of local arts activist Rebecca Hoffberger, who has been the driving force behind the American Visionary Art Museum, to be located on Key Highway across from the Inner Harbor. It will specialize in "outsider" or "visionary" art -- works created by self-taught individuals independent of the influence of mainstream art. There are a several institutions devoted to visionary art in Europe, but none in this country.

Ms. Hoffberger has raised $5.5 million to build the museum and get it running. The funds pledged so far include $1.3 million in state bond issues, $1.8 million from the Zanvyl Krieger Fund and $500,000 from Anita and Gordon Roddick, founders of the Body Shop International. Ms. Hoffberger has been striving to bring a visionary or "outsider" art museum to Baltimore for eight years.

"Visionary" or "outsider" art is a relatively recent genre in this country. It differs from both mainstream art and folk art in its use of unconventional materials, its emphasis on intensely private, often idiosyncratic vision and its rejection of or indifference to some of the traditional aesthetic rules.

Perhaps the most famous work of American visionary art is James Hampton's "The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations' Millennium General Assembly," a monumental work comprised of 177 glittering objects sheathed in aluminum and gold foil now in the permanent collection of the National Museum of American Art. Hampton was a janitor at the General Services Administration in Washington, D.C., from 1946 until his death in 1964.

"The visionary or 'outsider' artist is driven by his or her own internal impulses to create," Ms. Hoffberger has written. "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." The same might be said of the nearly Herculean effort Ms. Hoffberger has expended, virtually single-handedly, for nearly a decade to create a permanent home in Baltimore for this most improbable and unique of art forms.

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