Rebecca Hoffberger, the founding director of the American Visionary Art Museum, confesses that she isn’t all that interested in art. At least, she’s not interested in art as it is conventionally discussed as a commodity, an artifact to covet by collectors who follow the art market. Instead, she’s drawn to the people who make the art, the ideas that shape it, and the worldviews the art represents.
“What really excites me has always been the level of thinking behind the art, the muse behind its creation,” she says. “Frankly, the outsider artists I’ve been privileged to know, I like the way they think. I see the art as just being, as [visionary artist] Lonnie Holley would say, the part that leaks out of their hearts, their souls, and their hands, is what is art. But it’s the whole package that I’m interested in.”
AVAM has showcased the inspired, overwhelming creations that leak out of visionary artists hearts and souls ever since opening in 1995 with The Tree of Life, the first of its year-long mega-exhibits that groups artists and their work thematically by Hoffberger and her co-curators, typically people from outside the conventional museum and fine art world. At the time Hoffberger and AVAM’s approach were considered unorthodox; today the museum’s permanent collection runs to nearly 4,000 objects, AVAM occupies a cozy campus in the Federal Hill neighborhood on the south side of Baltimore’s inner harbor, and the U.S. Congress has designated AVAM the “official national education center, repository and museum for self-taught, intuitive artistry.” Not bad for a museum that started with seven plainspoken education goals at its outset. With the initial goal to: “Expand the definition of a worthwhile life.”
Hoffberger pursued such consciousness expansion for most of her life. In conversation she brings up stories of her early encounters with people who didn’t simply march to the beat of their own drummer but dreamed up new instruments, melodies, and music to redefine life’s rhythms. A Baltimore native, she mentions a local man called Bumblebee—”he would buzz instead of speak,” she explains—who made gorgeously ornate paper cuts. Instead of attending college, Hoffberger became the first American to study mime with Marcel Marceau in Paris. And she vividly recalls the first time she laid eyes on the now legendary street musician and composer Moondog in Manhattan when she was young. He was vocalizing some beautifully invented melody in his rich voice while wearing his trademark horned Viking helmet, a cape made out of soda can flip tops, and chain mail. Underneath that, he wore nothing.
At 62 years old, Hoffberger remains the indefatigably charismatic woman who, in 1984, had an idea for a visionary art museum in Baltimore and started seeking out items for its permanent collection a year later. She was then the development director of People Encouraging People, a program based in Sinai Hospital’s Department of Psychiatry in Baltimore. She met artists such as Gerald Hawkes, an artist and Army veteran from Baltimore who, following an assault during a mugging, became near destitute and unemployed. An accomplished craftsman who used matchsticks to make objects like tables, after the assault his work became more expressive and sculptural—a woman’s head, a human figure, his own briefcase.
Hoffberger was drawn to artists such as Hawkes, people who use whatever materials they can get their hands on to create their own vocabulary. And in the 1980s Hoffberger knew of a few museums devoted to the kind of work that inspired her. There was the Museu de Imagens do Inconsciente (Museum of Images of the Unconscious), which was founded by psychiatrist Nise da Silveira in Rio de Janeiro and featured the works of patients undergoing psychiatric care. There was La Fabuloserie, the little museum featuring the collection of outsider art amassed by architect Alain Bourbonnais in France.
And there’s Jean Debuffet’s Musée Collection de Art Brut, the Swiss museum dedicated to art created by people outside of mainstream culture. “Everybody told me, ‘Oh, what you’re thinking about sounds just like Dubuffet,'” Hoffberger says, adding that in 1985 she commissioned a short documentary about the art brut museum. “And [Debuffet] did give me the idea, quite frankly, of the importance of the artist’s bio in their story. Not the kind of bio that is in art speak and just talks about where they’ve shown [their work]. I wanted the bio to be able to speak to somebody who is ten years old, and is more about human-to-human contact. Where do they get their ideas from? What’s important to who they are? I didn’t want to talk about art as a thing.”
That focus on the human story has guided every one of AVAM’s annual mega-exhibits. The Visionary Experience: Saint Francis to Finster, occupies part of the museum for 2014-’15, and it’s a broad look at what visionary art can be today. It explores the eureka moments for artists, scientists, thinkers, and spiritualists—that instant when ideas collided with inspiration and lighting struck. More than 40 artists are represented, including the Rev. Howard Finster, musician Jimi Hendrix, comic artist Robert Crumb, and architect Paolo Soleri.
Visionary also includes paintings by Ingo Swann, which were gifted to the museum’s permanent collection by the Swann estate in his memory. “He was the most famous remote viewer for the United States government,” Hoffberger says of Swann, referring to the directed study of extrasensory perception that Swann helped pioneer. From 1972 to 1988, he was one of many researchers investigating remote viewing in experiments funded by the United States federal government. It was part of a directed effort to assess the potential threat of the psychic research that the American military and intelligence communities heard was being conducted by the Soviet Union.
One, “The Light Bringer,” hangs above the spiral staircase and greets visitors walking up to the exhibition. It features an otherworldly figure with arms, torso, and hands like a man but with an elongated head and horn-like crescents swooping up from his eyes. The figure is the red-orange color of a fire’s embers, and in his hand he holds a glowing wedge of light.
Hoffberger explains that Swann painted through channeling, adding that when she spoke with Thomas McNear, the now retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel that Swann trained in remote viewing, he told her that Swann confessed that “The Light Bringer” was a difficult to paint because the being was telling him what to do. McNear informed her that “the being would say, ‘No, no, no, the arm is totally wrong—take it off and do it again,'” Hoffberger says. “Every symbol in there is what was directed by the being [to Swann], and I had never heard that before.”
She gives the painting one final admiring look before continuing, tossing quick anecdotes about the artists behind the works in Visionary and the museum’s permanent collection as she passes them. She tells these stories because she cares about who these artists are and were. Their artwork is simply an invitation to find out more about what it’s like to see, know, and understand the world through their eyes.
“I’ve always looked for the outsiders, the outliers,” Hoffberger says. “If you really want to understand what it is to be a human being, you have to look at people at the edges, because they really report back what is possible. The Gerald Hawkes. The Moondogs. And that is such an incredible, liberating thing—to see there are all these wide ways of negotiating life.”