ART WITH A HEART

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BALTIMORE — Art museums can be somber places.  All that angst.  All that ambition.  All that money.  A stroll through MoMA is a lesson in the art business as much as art history.  But here on the edge of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, one museum has a vision.

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   Perhaps you “know nothing about art but know what you like.”  Then step into the old Baltimore Copper Paint building and see if you like. . .

— a 16-foot Lusitania made from 194,000 toothpicks

— a cabinet of PEZ dispensers

— a 1970s muscle car festooned with blue milk of magnesia bottles

— exhibitions titled “High on Life,” “Wind in My Hair,” “The Big Hope Show,” and “All Things Round: Galaxies, Eyeballs, and Karma.”

The American Visionary Art Museum has a vision, all right.  And that vision doesn’t much care whether you A) like the art; B) say “my kid could do that;” or C) even consider it (ahem!) art.  Opened in 1995 and instantly hailed as “one of the most fantastic museums anywhere in America,” AVAM has sculpted its own image ever since.  

AVAM is America’s home for Art Brut (“raw art”).  The term was coined by French sculptor Jean Dubuffet, a contemporary of Picasso who turned from early success to the art of outcasts — mental patients, children, prisoners, and “self-taught” artists.  Art Brut, Dubuffet said, celebrates “works created from solitude and from pure and authentic creative impulses.”

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Dubuffet is the patron saint of AVAM, but its guiding light is founder Rebecca Alban Hoffenberger.  Once hailed as “the P.T. Barnum of the art world,” Hoffenberger is as colorful as AVAM’s walls.  Born in a Baltimore suburb, she dodged college in the late Sixties to study mime in Paris.  What followed was a kaleidoscopic vision uniquely her own.  

Marriages, daughters, and a stint on the Seventies post-hippie trail led Hoffenberger to Boulder, to Mexico and back, dabbling in psychic arts, ballet, and humanitarian aid.  Then in 1985, she visited Dubuffet’s Collection de l’art Brut in Lausanne, Switzerland.  Here was art not just with a mind but with a heart.  Not some fine sculpture by someone trained in “the academy.”  Not another abstract worth untold millions.  This was art, as Hoffenberger describes AVAM, made by “farmers, housewives, mechanics, the disabled, the homeless. . . all inspired by the fire within.”

Returning to America, Hoffenberger focused her kaleidoscope on an idea.  Why not start a raw art museum in that bastion of Bohemia — Baltimore.

Hoffenberger convinced city officials to donate a site a mile from where Francis Scott Key wrote “The Star Spangled Banner.”  Donations and grants followed, and in November 1995, the museum opened.  Its collection began with 400 works by mental patients and has since expanded to 4,000 items.  

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Dozens are on display in two converted warehouses.  As original as the art itself are the artist bios. Many tell tragic tales, not of art school but of reform school, jail, abuse and alcohol.  But beside each bio is each visionary’s answer and antidote — Art.  Some of it is raw, but much of it is beautiful or beautifully different.  And all of AVAM’s art follows the museum’s core value — “Never bore — enchant.”

Hoffenberger admits to having “no background in the arts.  Everything I do is intuitive.”  Her intuition led her to hire guest curators for each rotating exhibition.  From “Tree of Life” to “What Makes us Smile,” each explores “one grand, spirited theme that has inspired or bedeviled humankind from the get go.”  And each exhibit unfolds in galleries replete with a Bartlett’s of quotations.  The current show, “Parenting: An Art Without a Manual,” cites wisdom from Einstein, Rumi, Bette Davis, Tolstoy, Aesop, and the TV show “The Big Bang Theory.”

The Art World is not amused.  Some dismissed Hoffenberger’s taste as “splashy, loud, cute, and funny.”  True to her vision, she doesn’t care. “'I have no interest in being a player in the art world,” she told the New York Times.  AVAM will never become “'a repository for dead objects that we're supposed to revere because someone says they're worth something.'' 

AVAM’s vision also involves the community.  The museum has hired the homeless, helped “at risk” kids make murals, and helped Baltimore become one of America’s wackiest cities.  AVAM is beloved for hosting parties, weddings, all-night goddess sleepovers, and an annual kinetic sculpture race that sends huge human-powered dragons and other delights careening along the Inner Harbor.  This year’s race, with prizes to both the Grand Mediocre East Coast Champion and the Next-to-Last Finisher, is on May 4.

So you don’t like “The World’s First Family of Robots?”  Maybe a Giant Gold Hand makes you long for Monet’s water lilies?  The artists at AVAM don’t care.  They didn’t make art for you — they made art to match their visions.

“Visionaries perceive potential and creative relationships where most of us don't,” Hoffenberg said.  “Without visionaries' willingness to be called fools, to make mistakes, to be wrong, few new 'right' things would ever be birthed.”

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