With sculptures of primates made up of dozens of different shades of green, and hand-embroidered collages that tell a Holocaust survivor’s story, the American Visionary Art Museum has a reputation for finding and displaying unique works of art. Now, the museum is getting ready to bid farewell to its founder and director and primary curator, Rebecca Alban Hoffberger, who has announced that she will be stepping down in 2022.
“(Hoffberger) really was a one-man band,” says Christopher Goelet, the chair of the museum’s board, on when he first joined the museum as a board member in 2012. “There were good support people in the museum, but essentially she was the director of the museum. She ran the day-to-day business of the museum; she was the curator for the museum, and she was essentially the money raiser for the museum. So she did, pretty much, everything.”
In her past 26 years at the museum, Hoffberger has taken only one vacation, she says. Holly Gudelsky Stone, a member of the museum’s board, described her as tireless, caring, brilliant and funny, and able to connect just as easily with a struggling, inner-city high school student as with a U.S. ambassador.
“She is both in awe of everyone she meets and what they bring to the table, and also comfortable with everyone that she interacts with,” Stone says. “It’s quite an art form in and of itself.”
Finding a spark
Born in 1952, Hoffberger grew up in Stevenson. She started to develop an interest in art when she was 5 years old, when one day her father picked up a hitchhiker in Pikesville. The hitchhiker, Hoffberger says, was well known, and she would call him Bumblebee.
“You’d pick him up, and if there was a kid in the car, he’d indicate to the parent, ‘What’s the child’s name?’” Hoffberger recalls. “And then he’d take out scissors and newspaper or butcher paper, and he’d make these intricate, cut-paper-doll banners with your name, interspersed with intricate characters.
“So that was the first time that I realized that there were many different ways of being on this earth,” Hoffberger says. “And I’ve always been attracted to people who kind of dance on the edge and are able to bring back something to the rest of us in the middle.”
Hoffberger attended Pikesville High before receiving early admission to college. Her college plans were diverted, however, when she received an invitation to study at an international school. The founder of that school was French-Jewish mime Marcel Marceau. He had invited her after seeing part of a film she had participated in at 13 while attending a Towson State summer program. One of the program’s teachers, Tony Montanero, was a friend of Marceau’s and had sent him the clip.
Recognizing it as the chance of a lifetime, Hoffberger accepted. Armed with no French language skills other than the word for “cotton candy,” and despite never having been on an airplane before, she traveled to Paris, becoming Marceau’s first American apprentice and a lifelong friend.
Envisioning a museum
In 1984, while working as a fundraiser, Hoffberger became interested in the world of art galleries. A vision of a museum started to take shape, she says. This vision led to a trial exhibition at the George Ciscle Gallery in 1985. While having no background in the museum world, she had an understanding of how nonprofits worked and an appreciation for diverse cultural content. Her exhibition subsequently broke the gallery’s attendance record and made the evening news five times in a month.
After settling on a location for her museum in Federal Hill, Hoffberger began fundraising for its creation. The museum incorporated in 1989 and opened its doors in 1995.
Today, the American Visionary Art Museum features the Jim Rouse Visionary Center with its conference center and classrooms, a sculpture plaza and an outdoor movie theater able to seat 2,000 attendees.
“It’s really a palace devoted to the power of intuition to make visible the imagination and the caring for how this can be a better world,” Hoffberger says.
In search of the unseen
A unique feature of the museum is its emphasis on showing the work of self-taught artists, Hoffberger says.
“I wanted intuitive self-taught,” Hoffberger says. “We’re really looking for people not trying to be artists, but letting it flow … from their life experience and their souls.”
To illustrate her reasoning, she explained how the parents of a 5-year-old might sometimes nudge or prod their child to sing “On the Good Ship Lollipop” during a family gathering.
“It’s adorable, the kid singing this thing that everybody knows,” Hoffberger says. “But it’s a very different experience to come across a child singing to themselves in the woods and they don’t know you’re there. What I’m looking for is that private world made manifest.”
In addition to Hoffberger’s gift for introducing the public to an artist’s message, Goelet credited her capacity to ferret out these artists in the first place.
“She has an extraordinary ability to find these pieces, because they’re not necessarily well advertised … and she has always found the pieces that helped convey the message of that particular exhibition to the visiting public,” Goelet says. “She can understand what it takes to make those art objects sing to the viewer.”
While there are of course great works that come from trained artists, Hoffberger says, her museum isn’t focused on the type of artist who has attended art school, is aware of what’s currently popular and who aims for success as a commercial artist.
“What I’m looking for are people not looking for us,” Hoffberger says.
Returning to the middle
One of the more interesting projects of the museum may be its annual kinetic sculpture race.
Held on the first Saturday of May, artists, engineers and bicyclists fashion human-powered sculptures capable of being peddled 15 miles around Baltimore, float over a body of water and navigate the course’s mudpit and sandpit challenges, Hoffberger says. In a final twist, the winner is not the participant who finishes first, but rather the one who finishes in the dead center of the pack.
In addition, exhibits currently at the museum include “The Secret Life of Earth: Alive! Awake! (and possibly really Angry!),” which includes emerald apes and an emphasis on environmentalism, and “Esther and The Dream of One Loving Human Family,” which features a series of embroideries recounting the life story of their maker, Holocaust survivor Esther Nisenthal Krinitz.
“It’s a museum that gives voice to some of the biggest questions that face us as a species and tries to answer through the voices of people who may not be heard all the time with fantastic pieces of art,” says Stone, a resident of Clarksville and member of Oseh Shalom Synagogue.
One exhibit that Hoffberger is curating is “Healing and the Art of Compassion (and the Lack Thereof!).” Opening this October, this exhibit will explore what exactly makes humans compassionate and what can happen when they are not, Stone says.
Rather than emphasizing the artworks themselves, the museum focuses more on the issues that inspired their creation, Hoffberger says.
“Most museums are very object oriented,” Hoffberger said. “And I felt that the true great museums had to be muse-oriented, or always be able to flesh out for the visitors the inspiration, not just the cult of objects.”
Hoffberger’s final day at the museum is scheduled for April 3, 2022. Hoffberger says she would be glad to step down earlier should her successor arrive sooner than expected.
Hoffberger wants to retire to focus on writing a play about the friendship between inventor Nicola Tesla and writer Mark Twain. She says she has waited 36 years to focus on this. The idea of the play came to her around the same time as her vision for the museum, she says. She chose to pursue the museum as it would employ more people.
The museum is in excellent shape, Hoffberger says, and she is confident that it will continue on without her.
“For the past 10 years we have been doing succession planning for all of our key personnel,” Hoffberger said. “So if one of us got hit by a bus, the museum would stay strong and vibrant.”
The museum’s board of directors is currently in the process of looking for Hoffberger’s successor.
“We’re looking for a very unconventional candidate,” Hoffberger says. “It has to really be a true visionary themselves, and I hope it will be someone far better than I.”
This story originally appeared in the Baltimore Jewish Times.