Culture + Style

The Way to Wonderland: How to Experience Baltimore’s American Visionary Art Museum

Tap into the wonder of eclectic art displayed at the American Visionary Art Museum. (Photo: Jack Hoffberger)

The American Visionary Art Museum (AVAM) in Baltimore has roots in an unlikely place: Sinai Hospital. Museum founder and director Rebecca Alban Hoffberger was working in the hospital’s psychiatry department when the art made by patients caught her eye. One man in particular captivated her: Gerald Hawkes.

She remembers him as a “a matchstick artist, who spoke and thought like a philosopher, who had been mugged and had suffered brain damage and kind of lost everything that a person could lose.”

Hoffberger decided to create a museum dedicated to self-taught visionary artists like Hawkes. When AVAM opened in 1995, Hawkes was the first person through its doors. Twenty-two years later, the museum has evolved into a must-see Baltimore landmark, a sparkling temple of fresh thought, intuition, humor and creativity that literally shines.

Marriott TRAVELER asked Hoffberger for her tips to best experience a museum that never fails to astound and surprise.

american visionary art museum
Rebecca Alban Hoffberger and a selection of the colorful works featured at the museum. (Photos: Courtesy of AVAM – left | Dan Meyers – middle and right)

1. Rethink your definition of the word “artist.”

The museum’s walls are filled with works by farmers, mathematicians, prison inmates and people with mental illness. “My favorite artists may not even think of themselves as artists,” says Hoffberger. “We’re looking for people who have such a powerful experience in their own life that their art is produced in expression of a life experience too big for words, be it some ecstasy or some devastation, and for it to not be aping the art of something else.”

2. Enjoy the great outside.

“Most urban museums are like fortresses, and ours is like a wonderland,” says Hoffberger. Indeed, the first thing you notice is the building itself, inspired by the Fibonacci series and decked out in mirrored mosaics created by at-risk and incarcerated youth from Baltimore.

Scattered around the building are sculptures set in a garden. Look for Dr. Tom Evermor’s towering upright bass topped with a bird’s head, Ben Wilson’s rough-hewn Meditation Chapel and Bob Benson’s Universal Tree of Life, shimmering in flashing mirrors.

“At 4 a.m. you can come up and gently hug the outdoor Cosmic Galaxy Egg by Andrew Logan, which has the images from the Hubble telescope of dying galaxies and birthing new stars,” says Hoffberger.

3. Read the panels.

Turned off by overly obtuse descriptions of works at other institutions? Welcome to the Visionary. “I’m always sad in museums when they use two-dollar words where a 50 cent word would [do]. It’s really a vanity in my opinion to use only academic terms when we’re here as museums to embrace a public,” says Hoffberger.

AVAM’s descriptions focus on the fascinating stories of the people behind the art — the painter whose dominant hand was amputated after being hit by a plane, the criminal forger who carves prison scenes onto ostrich eggs. Hoffberger calls it being “muse-oriented” versus object-oriented.

“If you’re just about the sacredness of objects alone, then you’re about dead things. You’re a mausoleum.”

american visionary art museum
Exhibits at the museum help visitors step out of the box. (Photo: Shawn Levin)

4. Laugh out loud.

Art museums can be so serious. Not AVAM. “Someone said that humor is like a vacation, so in our most serious exhibitions, there’s always something to smile about,” Hoffberger explains. Take, for instance, the Muppets’ Swedish Chef made entirely of Peeps or the farting machine between the bathrooms in the basement.

5. Visit the gift shop.

Sideshow isn’t your typical museum store hawking art posters and Monet mugs. Stocked with all kinds of glorious oddities and silly souvenirs, the founder says it’s “kind of a museum in itself.”

6. Catch a movie.

On Thursday nights during the summer, the museum is free from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., and they show movies on a giant screen using Federal Hill Park as a natural amphitheater.

7. Embrace your own creativity.

Hoffberger hopes guests leave the museum feeling “tenderness for the human condition and how difficult it is to be anybody.” However, the Visionary also sends visitors off inspired, their own creative embers stoked by the genius and novelty of the works on display.

Hoffberger says her own art is seeing how to put things together, but yours might be teaching or gardening or cooking. “I think we’re in a world that needs everybody’s creativity and kindness, and hopefully the museum is about that in spades.”