The best way to sample the depth of knowledge and spiritual height of Rebecca Hoffberger is to walk the hallways, climb the soaring spiral stairs, and immerse yourself in the exhibit areas of Baltimore’s quirky, unique, inspiring and nationally acclaimed American Visionary Art Museum. There you will find creative vision and revelations in countless works by mostly unknown, self-taught artists.
Hoffberger and her late husband LeRoy Hoffberger championed such artistry, along with their many believers, contributors, and dedicated staff, from the day they opened the museum and education center in 1995. Straight out of Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, the American Visionary Arts Museum is ‘of the people, by the people and for the people.’
Should you think this all sounds just a little too lofty, don’t forget to spend time in the museum’s restrooms where all kinds of humor – including the perennial favorite bathroom variety – festoons the walls. ‘Hooker Named Lay Person of the Year,’ reads one of the many framed headlines in one of the restrooms.
Bladders relieved and minds refreshed, visitors find themselves drying their hands a long time as they read the walls before laughing their way back to more of the engaging exhibits.
Hoffberger believes firmly in a quotation by Oscar Wilde: “If you are going to tell people the truth, make them laugh, or else they’ll kill you.” Truth has always been central to Hoffberger’s mantra: focusing on the power of new and fresh thinking from the intuition and imagination of people.
“I’m an addict of fresh thought,” she said in a recent interview. That addiction has been on display for 27 years in the form of the museum’s permanent exhibits, and 41 different themed exhibits she has envisioned and curated through all those years. The unique works of the cavalcade of self-taught artists she has gathered for each exhibit have always been the primary medium carrying the various themes.
The title of Hoffberger’s last and most recent themed exhibit – The Art of Healing, Compassion, and the Lack Thereof – provides a sense of the truths explored by her exhibits through the decades.
But let’s move on, because that is exactly what Rebecca Hoffberger is doing. Words, also, can no more adequately describe the American Visionary Art Museum experience than holding a grain of sand can describe a beach. Just go. Its red brick buildings at the intersection of Key Highway and Covington – now Rebecca Hoffberger Way thanks to Baltimore City Council – are an exhibit unto themselves. The complex is tucked between the foot of historic Federal Hill and Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.
But don’t expect to find Hoffberger in those hallways where she has spent the greatest majority of her waking hours since 1995. In April this year she announced her pending retirement and has since turned over the museum’s reins to new president and director Jenenne Whitfield.
Hoffberger, however, has no plans to cut her ties to the museum or to her native city. “After 27 years of rolling strikes, my only failure has been not yet raising the modest – I think – $27 million needed for a sustaining endowment. We’re debt free, but the endowment is needed to really secure our future. I’m working on that. I’m hardwired to try and I know how to succeed. That’s why we’re one of the few museums in the region with increasing annual attendance.”
The museum’s approximate $3.2 million annual budget confirms this enlightened enterprise is no small notion.
Although transitioning, no moss is growing beneath Hoffberger’s feet. As she begins her seventh decade, she wants to finish a play she is writing about the interconnected lives of Mark Twain and inventor Nikola Tesla. “I want the play to reveal how we’ve come to where we are now.”
She also envisions a West Coast version of the visionary art museum including the world’s largest straw-bale building.
But they will have to wait until Hoffberger finishes what she says may be her last love song for Baltimore.
Government funding, to the tune of $150 million, is on its way for major work at the Baltimore Convention Center. Another $67.5 million for major projects is headed to the Inner Harbor area. “It’s only a five-minute walk from the convention center to the Inner Harbor,” she said. “A safe and beautiful walking path has to be part of that vision. I’m in the process of getting that together right now. It grieves me that so much money is being spent on things that don’t last. I want to use the same intuitive thought and imagination on display in the museum to inject fresh thought and inspiration into Baltimore. I understand what it takes to make things successful.”
Hoffberger points to Tivoli Gardens in Denmark and the city of Medellin in Colombia, South America, as two success stories that can help Baltimore leave behind its poster child image of a city gone wrong.
“Tivoli Gardens are Denmark’s number one tourist attraction. They’re fun, beautiful, family friendly, elegant, whimsical and safe, and they have endured for 130 years.
“Medellin was once the murder capital of Colombia, she says. “Because of the efforts of three enlightened mayors in a row, Medellin has turned around with extensive park and transportation systems and high tech education that benefit all of the people. It is now one of the most studied and peaceful cities there is. I’ve gone to Medellin and met with the principals there to learn how they have accomplished what they have.”
She also points to the closer Columbia, just 25 minutes away from downtown Baltimore, brought to life several decades ago by social visionary and architect James Rouse. Rouse was also the architect of the Inner Harbor’s Harborplace transformation.
“A recent survey found Columbia to be the safest city and the second happiest city in America,” said Hoffberger. “Look at its beautiful Centennial Park. Rouse said: ‘Cities were meant to be gardens in which to grow beautiful people.’ He also said that cities that aren’t great places for everyone can’t be great cities.
‘I have a vision for what it would take to transform Baltimore. It’s fleshed out, just as detailed as the vision I had for the visionary art museum when I started working on it in 1984. I’m presently working with a major public relations firm to make this vision palpable so we can bring Baltimore back in a permanent way.”
The firm, said Hoffberger, is not charging her or the city for the work nor is she charging the city for her plans.
This whirling dervish, feeding on the kind of extra-dimensional intuition and imagination she has experienced and has cultivated in the visionary art museum, fully expects to see her plans realized. She’s hopeful too that her family history of longevity will give her all the time she needs.
“My father lived to 101,” she said. “Ramrod straight and in perfect health until he died. And that despite a heartbeat that sounded like Gene Krupa on acid!”
Hoffberger well remembers the comment from Sister Charlotte Kerr, an acupuncturist well-versed in ancient Chinese wisdom, when she heard about Rebecca’s father’s remarkable heart. The comment resonated within Hoffberger’s innate optimism and wellspring of purposeful energy that drives her continuing quest for truth and fresh, intuitive thought.
“She told me that a heart that dances is stronger than a heart that marches.”
Dennis Forney has been a publisher, journalist and columnist on the Delmarva Peninsula since 1972. He writes from his home on Grace Creek in Bozman.