The American Visionary Art Museum (AVAM) is an art museum located in the Federal Hill neighborhood at 800 Key Highway in Baltimore, Maryland. The city agreed to give the museum a piece of land on the south shore of the Inner Harbor under the condition that its organizers would clean up residual pollution from a copper paint factory and a whiskey warehouse that formerly occupied the site. It has been designated by Congress as America's national museum for self-taught art.
The founder and director of the AVAM is Rebecca Alban Hoffberger, who while working in the development department of Sinai Hospital’s (Baltimore) People Encouraging People (a program geared toward aiding psychiatric patients in their return to the community) began to develop the idea for a visionary museum, an idea that eventually blossomed into the American Visionary Art Museum, or AVAM. Initially, Hoffberger was simply interested in the artwork created by the patients in the People Encouraging People program, and found herself “impressed with their imagination” and looking to “their strengths, not their illnesses.”
Hoffberger was greatly impressed by a 1980s visit to the Musee de l’Art Brut in Lausanne, Switzerland, which was established by French artist Jean Dubuffet as a collection of “l’art brut” or “raw art because of the untamed emotions resonating in it.”8 Hoffberger described the museum as “the best, the most imaginative, the most original museum” and soon adopted the idea of “l’art brut” for her own visionary museum.
To gauge the community’s interest in visionary art, Hoffberger and gallery owner George Ciscle held an exhibit in 1987 titled “American Outsider Art,” at which point she formally announced her plans for the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore. With the support of her friends and family, Hoffberger petitioned the city of Baltimore and was eventually awarded two buildings near the city’s Inner Harbor worth $1.1 million. The State of Maryland also issued $1.3 million in bonds to finance the construction, which helped jump-start the building process. Hoffberger also relied heavily on contributions and donations, a tradition that continues to keep the museum running today. Hoffberger raised $7 million in six years from donors such as Anita Roddick. Designed by Rebecca Swanston and Alex Castro, the museum was opened to the public on November 24, 1995.
AVAM has 55,000 square feet (5,100 m) of exhibit space and a permanent collection of approximately 4,000 pieces. The collection includes works by visionary artists Ho Baron, Nek Chand, Ted Gordon, Clyde Jones, Leo Sewell, Vollis Simpson and Ben Wilson as well as over 40 pieces from the Cabaret Mechanical Theatre of London. Some of this work is displayed in a gallery on the first floor of the Main Building, throughout the James Rouse Visionary Center, and outdoors when new temporary themed exhibitions are being installed.
The museum has no staff curators, preferring to use guest curators for its shows. Rather than focusing shows on specific artists or styles, it sponsors themed exhibitions with titles such as Wind in Your Hair and High on Life. Hoffberger takes pride in the fact that AVAM is "pretty un-museumy" .