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Museum for visionary art grants a preview tour Due to open Nov. 24, site draws wide notice


Construction took a month longer than expected.

Hardly any of the art has been installed.

And the president fell into a hole in the floor yesterday and was taken to the hospital with torn ligaments.

But that didn't stop organizers from holding a preview "Founders Day" tour for downtown Baltimore's newest attraction, the American Visionary Art Museum on Key Highway.

"We're going to have to work 24 hours a day, but we'll open on time," promised Rebecca Hoffberger, the president and founder of the $7 million museum at Key Highway and Covington Street.

Created in and around two former brick warehouses at the foot of Federal Hill, the museum is the first in this country devoted exclusively to visionary art -- works by self-taught artists outside the mainstream. Congress has declared it the "national repository and educational center for visionary art."

Designed by Rebecca Swanston and Alex Castro, the three-level museum also will contain components not typically found in a museum, visionary or no.

They include an altar for nondenominational weddings, made of freshly cut tree limbs; a wildflower garden; stair railings incorporating the forms of tree trunks and branches, cast in bronze by metalworker David Hess; a "Cinema-Paradiso"-style movie theater; and a gourmet cafe run by self-taught chef Peter Zimmer.

Yesterday's event drew hundreds of people, from neighbors in Federal Hill to well-known representatives of the worlds of art, education and politics.

For many, it was the first chance to peek inside the curvaceous complex, which combines old structures with sweeping new forms of concrete and glass.

With just two months to go before the Nov. 24 grand opening, the museum shell is now mostly complete, and a giant whirligig wind sculpture has been installed outside. But the galleries remain empty, waiting for more than 400 art works to be installed for the first show.

That didn't prevent visitors, many sporting colorful whirligig-topped beanies, from sharing their own visions about the museum.

"It represents the future of Baltimore," said 3rd District Rep. Ben Cardin. "It's exciting. It's different. It's fun. It's willing to take a chance. It's what downtown should be all about."

Fred Lazarus IV, president of the Maryland, Institute College of Art, predicted it will "do for Baltimore what the National Aquarium has done in terms of generating interest from the national media."

Bernard Manekin, a well-known developer, marveled at the way old structures were combined with new. "It proves that you can do some very creative things with old buildings," he said. "You don't have to tear them down."

Griff Bates, an artist from Ellicott City, said the museum will expose many people to a realm of art they have never seen before.

"I hope this will inspire people to go home and do something on their own," he said.

Addressing more than 100 guests from a wheelchair, a reminder of her morning fall, Ms. Hoffberger indicated the museum should benefit greatly from its national designation.

"Many museums are taking a great interest in this field of art, but we are the national museum, and we are very grateful to the other museums that have recognized its value," she said.

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