Funky art museum’s new leader
If you have ever asked, “What is the meaning of art and why should I care?” then Jenenne Whitfield, the new executive director of Baltimore’s popular American Visionary Art Museum (AVAM), has the answers for you.
Whitfield believes that the creation and appreciation of art can lead to a fuller life.
“The key for me,” Whitfield told the Beacon in a recent interview, “is the variety of ways that artistic expression can ignite the senses. Art for art’s sake, and art for the sake of humanity — both are important.”
Whitfield took over as AVAM director in September after a 27-year run by founding director Rebecca Alban Hoffberger, who has said of her successor: “Her personal passion for visionary art mirrors my own.”
The museum displays art by untrained artists of varied backgrounds: ordinary people from all walks of life, from farmers and mechanics to the imprisoned and homeless.
Located at the foot of Federal Hill, the AVAM complex consists of a striking museum building, plus sculpture gardens and an outdoor movie theater, as well as a former whisky warehouse converted to classroom space.
AVAM is congressionally designated (thanks to Sen. Barbara Mikulski) as a national museum “dedicated to intuitive, self-taught artistry.”
Since its founding 30 years ago, the museum has gained national attention from the likes of Oprah and John Oliver. CNN dubbed it “one of the most fantastic museums anywhere in America,” National Geographic praised it as “an exuberant haven for self-taught artists,” and USA Today deemed it “a temple of outsider art.”
AVAM receives more than 100,000 visitors a year, from art school students to nursery school students to politicians.
Maryland Congressman Jamie Raskin, honored at a gala last month with the museum’s Grand Visionary Award, told the Beacon that Whitfield’s arrival at the AVAM is “exciting, promising and right on time.”
He added that Whitfield “is an artistic visionary born with the quirky, funky outrageous and resilient spirit of Baltimore in her heart.”
Director comes with experience
Whitfield comes to Baltimore from her hometown of Detroit, where for 28 years she worked with and became president of what is known as the Heidelberg Project — an outdoors art environment on a rundown city street.
Founded by artist Tyree Guyton (whom Whitfield married in 2001), the project has drawn hundreds of thousands of yearly visitors, as well as high critical praise.
“An artist had taken over an entire street of mostly abandoned buildings and transformed it into a giant work of art,” Whitfield said of the project. “Even the street was painted.”
Whitfield, a former banker, taught classes at the University of Michigan and Wayne State University, serving as a mentor for many artists.
She also co-founded an art collective in Detroit called United Artists of Detroit (UAD), an “online platform for artists and creatives in various disciplines that bring artists and resources together in one place,” according to its website.
Whitfield is only the second director of AVAM. “Rebecca [Hoffberger] has done an extraordinary job of embracing, advancing and providing a place for the intuitive creative spirit to flourish and grow,” Whitfield said.
“I look forward to building upon her strong foundation by increasing AVAM’s visibility, building greater alliances and taking AVAM to its next level.
“Rebecca and I are like sisters. We are united by the shared goal of bringing the work of visionaries to life,” Whitfield added.
Permanent and new exhibits
AVAM’s permanent collection includes paintings, sketches and indoor and outdoor sculptures. Each spring, it hosts a “kinetic sculpture race,” in which people design all-terrain human-powered floats that they bike or paddle in a parade starting at the museum.
The museum, according to its marketing department, “champions the role intuition plays in creative invention and evolutionary innovation of all sorts — be it in the field of art, science, health/wellbeing, engineering, humor, philosophy, and especially in inspiring compassionate and creative acts of social justice and betterment.”
There’s both creative invention and humor in the current group show, “Abundance: Too much, too little, just right.”
The show, which opened in October and runs through September 3, 2023, encompasses the vision and goals of the museum and its new director, Whitfield said. Most of the artists are local, and they include a coal miner, teachers, construction workers, a boxer and a carpenter.
The exhibition “takes a look at consumption and how many people have way more than they need, while others struggle to merely survive,” she said.
“The artists in this exhibition demonstrate how everyday things, often referred to as discards, can be used in the creative process.”
The “discards” being used in the exhibit include tinfoil (fashioned into an exquisite elephant), buttons, bottlecaps, pins, pennies, shells, ceramic plates, broken glass, used clothing, broken TV tubes and batteries, driftwood, paper cups and plates, old magazines, Styrofoam and scrap metal.
Whitfield recalled that in the Heidelberg Project in Detroit an old, abandoned car was “turned into a sculpture, into a work of art. The creation of art does not have to start with conventional material,” she said.
Outreach being planned
The new director, who has taught courses on “art as a social practice” at two universities, expressed special interest in “strengthening the educational arm of the museum.”
Among other ways of doing so, Whitfield hopes to take the museum’s art and philosophy into Maryland classrooms — from colleges to public schools.
“Art programs in most public schools have been cut,” she pointed out. “That’s why it is important for us to develop programs for the schools, to teach that art is a vehicle, a tool that helps you to tap into your own creativity.”
That creativity does not only apply to the visual arts, “but helps us to find what we are good at in life,” Whitfield said. “It’s also exploration to expand the definition of a worthwhile life.”
A program for the schools is “in the development stages,” she said, adding, “Stay tuned.”
Visitors from the 50-and-older crowd may be pleased that the museum has a leader of education who creates interesting art programs for older adults and children alike.
She also pointed out the role older artists have played and continue to play. “Much of the art in AVAM was created by people after they retired,” Whitfield noted.
As she put it in in a statement announcing her appointment last March, “What excites me most is that AVAM’s philosophy and visual aesthetics are beautifully aligned with what it means to be human. And what we should strive for as a human race.”
Whitfield sees her current role as looking for artists “who are trained or not,” but who can express through their art “a hopeful feeling…for a better world for humanity.”
The American Visionary Art Museum, located at 800 Key Highway, is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays. Admission costs $15.95 ($13.95 for people 60 and over). For more information, visit avam.org or call (410) 244-1900.