MUSEUM VISIONARY

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A visitor to Baltimore's American Visionary Art Museum, who has been rooted in front of a painting for several minutes, turns and comments excitedly to a stranger about how much she likes the work.

Immediately the pair becomes engaged in animated conversation, smiling widely, nodding, gesturing toward the artwork. Before parting, the two women hug.

One of them, it turns out, is Rebecca Hoffberger, the museum's founding director. At most museums, visitors rarely bump into top staff members, much less exchange observations and warm hugs with the chief administrator. But at AVAM, a museum dedicated to works by "outsider," or self-taught, artists, the unexpected, emotional and even truly wacky may occur on any given day.

Hugging the director is no big deal around here.

From the colorful whirligig at its front door to the newly installed gleaming glass African-American Icarus that continually flies from floor to ceiling in the stairwell, the museum seems to shout "fun." In the 10 years since it opened, AVAM has built a national reputation for innovative exhibitions and has brought outsider art, long considered in scholarly circles a marginal art form, greater visibility and recognition.

On the south side of the city's Inner Harbor, it also has become a tourist destination. Now Hoffberger aims to ensure the museum's future by raising $25 million for its endowment - and is setting her sights on a second venue on the West Coast.

"All my dreams for what this museum could be have come true. I always wanted to create a place where intuition and experience would be honored," says Hoffberger, who conceived the idea for the museum 20 years ago while working for a local mental health program.

"We've always been interested in having a branch on the West Coast once we've fully met our endowment goals here in Baltimore. L.A. is the ultimate storytelling town, and visionary art is the ultimate narrative art, so the two could be a great match."

To mark the museum's 10th anniversary, more than 400 supporters will attend a benefit dinner Saturday. Festivities will include a polka cocktail hour, dinner, a silent auction of outsider art and dancing until midnight. In typical AVAM fashion, scheduled to attend are such diverse guests as South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu and actor, children's rights activist and former TV talk-show host Rosie O'Donnell.

"There's nothing like it anywhere else," William Gilmore, director of the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, says of AVAM. "The fact that it is marking its 10th year is a good indication that it has not only maintained, but grown and excelled."

When the museum opened, it had a budget of $1.1 million, a staff of seven and a collection of 1,500 objects, most of which were donated by Hoffberger. Its budget since then has more than doubled to $2.3 million; the museum boasts a staff of 18 and houses a collection of 4,000 objects from around the world. Last year, it attracted nearly 70,000 visitors, a quarter of whom came from out of town. It also unveiled the $9 million Jim Rouse Visionary Center which houses new gallery space, an education center and conference rooms.

"[Hoffberger] saw a possibility for something that nobody else could see at the time, and then she made it happen," says Walters Art Museum director Gary Vikan.

Through the years, Hoffberger has exhibited a marked talent for being ahead of the curve. She located the museum on a stretch of waterfront property donated by the city. Now the surrounding area is experiencing a mini-boom: Housing prices in the adjacent Federal Hill neighborhood have sky-rocketed, new restaurants dot nearby blocks and luxury condominiums with units beginning at $1.2 million are being built across the street.

When she began planning the museum, the artists - often homeless, uneducated or mentally ill - whose work she championed were mostly ignored by the art world. Now collecting "outsider" art is considered trendy among aficionados, and a younger generation of postmodern artists happily borrows its rough-and-ready materials and forms.

Finally, though Hoffberger mounts just one exhibition annually, AVAM shows frequently have particular resonance within contemporary culture. A 2001 exhibit titled, The Art of War and Peace, for example, coincided with the terrorist attacks of 9/11; last year, a show examining the beauty and power of water coincided with the tsunami in Southeast Asia and Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

"So much of the art world has this staid, elitist aura," says Andrew Edlin, a New York dealer whose gallery specializes in outsider art. "AVAM just busts down all those barriers. It's a welcoming environment for art."

Past shows have dealt with subjects such as the environment, substance abuse, art by the very old and the very young, and alien visitations. Community events offered by the museum have included a wedding ceremony for robots and a "Great Mother Goddess Sleepover Party and Summit on the Future," a quirky fundraiser in which women were invited to spend the night in the museum to discuss the world's fate. There's also an annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day observance held free for schoolteachers, kinetic sculpture races and an art-car parade held each year during the city's summer Artscape festival.

"Most people aren't sophisticated about art but they're interested in it anyway," Edlin says. "Too often, there's no one to explain it to them and they're made to feel they don't belong. But AVAM is the antithesis of that, which is why it's so popular."

As director and co-curator of many of the museum's exhibitions, Hoffberger describes her perspective on her institution's mission as a blend of art, science and philosophy: "I want people to get an education not only about art, but about life as well," she says. "I like to say that, ultimately, this museum has a very humanistic outlook."

Now that she's nursed AVAM through it first decade, Hoffberger, 53, is determined to solidify her vision by raising a $25 million endowment.

"That's my main priority at this point," says Hoffberger, who estimates that the museum's board has raised more than $33 million for capital and operating expenses over the past decade in addition to the $850,000 currently in the endowment. (Her husband, Baltimore attorney and museum co-founder LeRoy Hoffberger, from whom she was separated last year, has contributed some $5 million to the museum over the years.)

A substantial endowment would allow AVAM to offer more programs, expand the staff (the museum has still to hire a full-time curator) and publish regular exhibition catalogs (presently, it only prints fliers to accompany its shows).

Though she'd like to increase the major events presented annually, the director intends to continue the long-standing format of large group exhibitions organized around broad topical themes.

And there's still the expansion to the West Coast.

A group, whose members include executives from Johnson & Johnson Co. and Neutrogena, as well as comedian Robin Williams and actors Leonard Nimoy, John Glover and Ed Norton (grandson of legendary Inner Harbor developer James Rouse) have expressed interest in such a project, Hoffberger says. Though no formal discussions of the venture have been held, Hoffberger, as usual, is receptive to new ideas. "We'd open the shows here, then they'd travel to the West Coast," she says, adding that such a marriage could produce great efficiencies in operation.

Either way, "we've been vindicated by sticking to our intuitive guns about what a museum should be," Hoffberger says.

"There have been very few new major cultural institutions over the last 10 years that have been able to make it, but people have really taken us to heart."

glenn.mcnatt@baltsun.com

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