by Skylaire Alfvegren
Upon the foundation of the Compagnie del' Art Brut in 1948, Andre Breton wrote, "Here the mechanisms of artistic creation are freed of all impediment." Painter/collector Jean Dubuffett established the museum to house what he termed art brut ('raw art'). Located in Lausanne, Switzerland, the museum was later joined by the Gugging Art Center of Austria and Germany's Prinzhorn Collection as the world's major repositories of what is now called visionary or outsider art.
Half a century later, America has caught up. In November, 1995, downtown Baltimore became the home to The American Visionary Art Museum, the country's official "National museum, repository and education center for the best in original, self-taught artistry." The largest museum of its kind in the world, it already boasts an attendance 3 1/2 times that of the Musee del' Art Brut.
Six curved galleries, spread over three stories and 35,000 square feet, are centered around a massive iron spiral staircase. The ground floor Permanent Gallery features works on long term loan, as well as selections from AVAM's collection. Numbering over 4,000 pieces, it includes many works donated by artists, as well as over 1,000 pieces donated by famed psychiatrist Dr. Otto Billig. It will remain open while each new exhibit is installed throughout the other five galleries.
"I had enormous pressure to follow the 'star system' - to open with the Finster show, followed by Darger, followed by the Martin Ramirez exhibition. I didn't think that was the proper way to embrace the public; and it doesn't honor the heart of the people who made the art," says founder and director, Rebecca Hoffberger. Unlike the static collections on display in Europe, AVAM presents thematic exhibitions, scouring the country (and world) for suitable works. "The timeless themes that the great philosophers have always struggled with are the same that inspire artistic expression. I had seen so much similarity in subject and theme in art from around the world that it began to arrange itself into categories. Before we opened our doors I knew what the first eleven exhibitions were going to be."
North Carolina mechanic/metalworker Vollis Simpson was commissioned to create the 55 foot tall whirligig in salute to Life, Liberty and The Pursuit of Happiness, which stands guard near the entrance. The adjacent 45 foot high barn (formerly a whisky warehouse) has been transformed into a home for sculpture and works too large or unruly to be contained indoors. It currently holds William Thomas Thompson's 300 foot long painting of the entire Book of Revelation, hung from the rafters. Nestled between the museum and the Sculpture Barn is the Wildflower Sculpture Garden which contains a meditation chapel created by English outsider Ben Wilson from found tree branches.
"Visionary art refers to art produced by self-taught individuals, usually without any formal training, whose works arise from an intensity of innate personal vision that revels foremost in the creative act itself." proclaims AVAM's mission statement. Unlike conventional museums where one admires the statement or execution of the art, a visit to AVAM can be a life-changing experience; emotions spring from the walls. "We've had trained painters say things like, 'Close the Guggenheim! This is the most honest museum I've ever seen.'" says Hoffberger. AVAM showcases the work of schizophrenics, illiterate cotton pickers, roadside reverends and Harvard-trained architects with equal reverence. "For me, AVAM brings it all together, because we get to play with the most sublime thinking and the most down to earth." says Hoffberger.
AVAM has been a long time coming. "In the US, the desire to color within the perceived boundaries of art history has been very strong," says Hoffberger. "In art class the teacher drags out the color wheel and says, 'now children, don't ever put orange next to green!'. Then you see Toulouse Lautrec's green-faced women, but that teaching has already gone in your ear. The blockbuster shows here are all European traditions - Van Gogh, the Impressionists - that's what our concept has become through the academic channels of culture. In Europe I think they have a great sense of confidence about taste. The German Expressionists called the Prinzhorn Collection their Bible, because it was great stuff and they knew it and valued it."
Interest in intuitive and outsider art has accelerated in the last few years, becoming the most exciting 'movement' in contemporary art, though works may date back a century. "I think a lot has changed with the contemporary art movement," she continues. "The ultra-modernist movement left a lot of people out in the cold because they just couldn't understand why an all-white canvas could be worth so much; it wasn't something they could relate to. I think this art just speaks to a lot of people." AVAM is expanding the definition of what art is- there are no restrictions imposed by materials, methods or ideologies. "It offers a way of approaching art from a completely new angle," explains folklorist/occasional AVAM curator, Roger Manley.
AVAM has been working its way through the cardinal elements: earth, wind, fire and water. The inaugural exhibition, "The Tree of Life," celebrated the gifts of the earth in the form of foresty ruminations and three-dimensional wooden sculpture.
Susanne Theis, organizer of Houston's famous art car parade and director of Texas' folk environment The Orange Show, curated the second exhibition, "The Wind in My Hair," which she describes as expressing all things "further, farther, faster and higher."
Hoffberger signs on guest curators for each exhibit, who may lack experience but have a sharp eye for the subject at hand. "Like everything else, it really has been an intuitive thing." she says. "Even if we had the money, I wouldn't hire an in-house curator because I really feel it's important to have fresh connections and insight."
AVAM's third and most ambitious show, "The End is Near!," celebrated fire, one of the mightiest powers for cleansing and transformation. Grand both in scope and subject, over 250 works explored the limitless fascination many visionary artists have with the end of the world and the approaching millennial overhaul.
"Whenever I describe "The End is Near!" it is the end of the world, not the end of the millennium, that first comes to mind. I'm not worried about the millennium, but the zeros are frightening to a lot people. I think it's similar to turning thirty or forty; it's just a product of the fact that we have ten fingers instead of eight." explains Manley. Heavy on images of everlasting hell-fire, The End is Near! is significantly darker than previous exhibitions. For every Angelic rendering of the creator or his heavenly paradise, one finds a dozen apocalyptic visions drawn from the book of Revelations.
"When I did a lot of folk field research in the south, with people on the low end of the social scale, they'd work hard all week and then sit for hours in church on Sunday to be told they were going to hell," Manley recalls. "I finally realized that the prospect of damnation is more comforting than thinking you'll be ejected from the universe when you die. That someone's going to go to a lot of trouble to torment you for eternity is very satisfying."
"The End is Near!" will close April 12. Six weeks later AVAM will open the final show of their 'alchemical agenda,' by plunging into the waters of human emotion with "Error and Eros: Love Profane and Divine." Billed as a "close-up look at love, the most powerful emotion" it will open in conjunction with the first annual Baltimore Folk and Visionary Art Show. "We want to represent great love, but we also want to deal with the fact that you're statistically more likely to be killed by someone that once said 'I Love You' than some random person." says Hoffberger. Curators Maggie and John Maizels publish Raw Vision, the International Journal of Intuitive and Visionary Art. David Bowie and his wife Iman, major collectors in the field, have agreed to serve as honorary co-chairs.
Future exhibitions are no less imaginative or thought-provoking. "We Are Not Alone: Angels and Other Aliens," will open next Spring, with visionary depictions of extraterrestrials, elves and other spirit guides, as well as mediumistic art and man-made UFOs. "Lifestyles of the Down and Out: We Are All Lying in the Gutter But Some of Us are Looking at the Stars" will focus on the survival techniques and artistic creations of hermits, street people, the mentally ill, and the imprisoned. "History of Addiction: Colonial America through Today" will examine the profound influence drugs have had on mankind, from sacred use of mushrooms and mescaline to '60s LSD art. "People don't realize how widespread addiction to laudanum, opiates and alcohol was even 150 years ago. I would like to see something that gets drugs out of a racial or economic context and that places it into a human one." says Hoffberger.
"The city of Los Angeles has offered us ten acres for a west coast branch, but I'm still cleaning the toilets in the afternoon," says Hoffberger, who has devoted 14 years to the planning, fundraising and direction of the museum and puts in over 60 hours each week as an unpaid volunteer. While the museum became eligible to apply for federal money in November, lack of funds is a constant threat. "If we go under, it won't be because we didn't believe in what we were doing." says Hoffberger, who directs AVAM and its 15 full-time staffers with a $1.4 million annual budget. (In contrast, New York's Folk Art Museum, smaller than AVAM's second floor, operates on $3.4 million yearly).
AVAM is a testament to spirit conquering reality; both in its contents and its existence. "I think it was Alice Bailey who predicted Baltimore would be the spiritual capital of the world by the year 2000." says Hoffberger. There will be no place more fitting to celebrate its arrival.