The American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland, is home to a permanent collection of “visionary art,” also sometimes referred to as outsider art. These are works that are produced by artists who are not classically trained and that come from a place of intense personal vision. Often, the work is not even thought of as “art” by the creator, but as a product of a purpose-driven vision.

Not to be confused with “folk art,” which is typically passed through generations and relates to a specific culture or people, the visionary art displayed at the Baltimore museum spans cultures, genres, and time. Works in the permanent collection may be contemporary or by artists who lived hundreds of years ago. Visionary artists invent their own traditions by listening to the voices of their souls and responding in a creative manner. There are currently over 4,000 pieces in the museum’s permanent collection. Of these, approximately 50 works are on display at any given time in the Permanent Collection Gallery. Works on display are generally curated to reflect a central theme related to the human condition.

Samples of works from the permanent collection include the World’s First Robot Family, a collection of robots assembled from found objects by the artist DeVon Smith (1926–2003) of Ellwood City, Pennsylvania. The colorfully painted robots use oscillating fans for movement and are made up of household electronics, including TV antennas and hair dryers. Before landing in the permanent collection at the American Visionary Art Museum, the robots were displayed at department stores and the Children’s Museum in Pittsburgh. Also in the museum’s collection is Horse Dress (c 1935–1940), a hand-crocheted dress detailed to infer the head and body of a horse, made by a schizophrenic patient at the Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital in Baltimore. The patients’ name has not been released due to confidentiality rules at the mental institution. However, it is known that the patient wore the dress daily in defiance of the hospital’s dress code. The intricacy of the handmade dress, which was made without pattern, seems to contradict the patient’s diagnosis.

History: Baltimore’s American Visionary Art Museum was conceptualized by Rebecca Alban Hoffberger in 1984 while she worked at the Department of Psychiatry at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. Between 1985 and 1989, Hoffberger raised funds for the museum with the aid of a friend and filmmaker who helped produce a documentary on Jean Dubuffet's Art Brut (Raw Art) Museum Collection in Lausanne, Switzerland. The concept for the AVAM is similar to the Raw Art museum in that it showcases the work of intuitive artists, however the concept was new to America and work had to be done to introduce donors to the idea. Public support for the idea grew after the success of Hoffberger’s first few exhibitions, one of which featured the work of matchstick artist Gerald Hawkes. Fundraising for the $7.6 million campaign continued through the 1990s as the museum also acquired several important collections for their research library and archives. The museum opened in 1995 and over 800 guests attended the opening gala. In 2004, the AVAM doubled in size with the addition of a second sculpture plaza, an outdoor movie space, and classroom and meeting space. Today’s museum comprises over 67,000 square feet of space, including a restaurant and museum store. Weddings and facility rentals supplement admissions fees to keep the museum debt-free. The museum is currently in the process of a $25 million endowment campaign to raise funds for a west coast location.

Ongoing Programs and Education: Ongoing exhibitions include the 1st floor Visionary Village, which displays large sculptures, and the 2nd floor Hall of Social Visionaries, which displays art related to social activism. Outdoor spaces include additional sculpture areas as well as The LeRoy Hoffberger Speaker's Corner, a platform for celebrating and exercising free speech named after the museum’s co-founder. The outdoor Star Spangled Sidewalk is a free exhibition designed by the artist Lee Wheeler, which depicts the National Anthem through paintings along the sidewalk. A wildflower garden is open and free during museum hours. Wildflowers surround and climb the meditation and wedding chapel built by artist Ben Wilson and sculptures grace the area as well.

The museum provides downloadable educational resources to accompany most exhibits as well as guided group tours. Weekend Walk-In Workshops are once-monthly hands-on workshops in which participants can make art and explore their own creative tendencies inspired by works from the permanent collection.

800 Key Highway Baltimore, MD 21230, website, Phone: 410-244-1900

Back to: Baltimore, Maryland

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