Rebecca Hoffberger, who trained as a mime but ended up giving voice to raw art as founder of Baltimore’s AVAM, retires after 27 years – Baltimore Sun

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Rebecca Alban Hoffberger is linked to train tracks in the vintage photograph used as an invitation to the American Visionary Art Museum’s gala last fall.

A locomotive spewing black smoke and emblazoned with the word “retirement” rolls down the tracks. The train’s cowcatcher looks like a set of giant metal cogs, as if Hoffberger’s retirement from the American Visionary Art Museum, which she incorporated 33 years ago, threatened to rip her apart.

But wait!!!

Moving even faster than the train is a flying saucer emitting a glowing cone of light and clearly intended to teleport the damsel. Despite the ropes binding her, Hoffberger has a wide grin on her face and doesn’t even look slightly distressed.

This train – and the flying saucer – arrive Monday, just in time. Today is Hoffberger’s last day as executive director of AVAM. At noon, Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott plans to dedicate part of Covington Street to “Rebecca A. Hoffberger Way.”

Although Hoffberger, 69, said she was extremely sad to leave the Baltimore institution which opened to the public in 1995, she is eager to find out where life will take her.

“I told everyone, ‘No boohooing,'” Hoffberger said in a recent interview at the museum. “I’ve spent more than half my life at AVAM, and it’s been amazing.

“But, the AVAM board has named someone who I believe will be a dead and gone successor. And there are other projects that I have been waiting for for a quarter of a century.

Jenenne Whitfield, director of the famous Heidelberg project in Detroit, becomes the new executive director of AVAM on September 6th. Between April and September, AVAM will be led by Chief Operating Officer Donna Katrinic.

Over the past 27 years, the cylindrical building with its mirrored facade and giant whirlpool on Key Highway has become such a beloved part of Baltimore’s civic fabric that it’s hard to remember how much the museum’s chances of success – and Hoffberger – were once daunting.

Today, the museum dedicated to showcasing the work of foreign artists is debt-free, with a budget of $3.1 million in 2022. Unlike most local museums, annual attendance at the AVAM (now about 115,000) grew steadily, though unlike the Walters Art Museum and Baltimore. Art museum, it charges admission.

AVAM-sponsored events such as the Kinetic Sculpture Race, a 15-mile trek of human-powered sculptures on land, through water and over mud and sand, have become annual traditions that attract thousands of visitors downtown.

Baltimore filmmaker John Waters said if he ever made a movie about Hoffberger’s life, he would call her “Glinda the Good Witch of Key Highway.”

“Rebecca is truly a witch,” Waters said. “If anyone could cast a spell on a building, she did.

“She invented it. It is his blood, his life, his worship. There are people who come to Baltimore just to visit the AVAM. I’ve never met anyone who went to this museum and didn’t like it.

Over the years, the AVAM has welcomed visitors such as the late South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Hoffberger collaborated on exhibitions with the 14th Dalai Lama. Stavros Lambrinidis, the European Union Ambassador to the United States, borrowed 28 works from AVAM in January 2021 and installed them in the room of his home where official events take place. He recently asked for the extension of the loan.

Hoffberger has followed his inner vision since the age of 5 and suffered from a painful bout of rheumatic fever.

“It taught me to get out of my body,” she said. “The only way I fell asleep was to pretend I was a baby bird in a nest and I could smell the cool night air.”

It didn’t take long for the baby bird to learn to fly. In 1969, when she was 16, Rebecca Alban moved to Paris to study mime with the legendary Marcel Marceau. She was his only American student at the time.

She had planned to drop out of high school and enroll in college early, but this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and formal education could wait.

A photo of the teenager graced the cover of the Baltimore Sun magazine for November 16, 1969.

The photographer had instructed young Rebecca to bend over, toss her mane of bright red hair into the air, and stand up quickly. In the photo, copper braids float above the pale oval of her face like candle flames emanating around the white-hot center.

But then, Hoffberger always burned hot.

Before she was 21, she married a star dancer at the Paris Opera, gave birth to a daughter, Belina, moved to the United States, and co-founded the New City Ballet Company in Columbia. Hoffberger raised money for the troupe and even persuaded famous fashion designer Emilio Pucci to design costumes for free.

By age 25, she had worked as a consultant for nonprofits, where she wrote a grant to ship the operating theaters inside former bomb shelters in Nigeria and Somalia, where they were used as field hospitals. For this effort, she was designated Dame by the International Order of the White Cross.

“They had operating tables, dental equipment, everything,” Hoffberger recalls.

By age 27, she had studied alternative medicine in Mexico with her second husband, author and parapsychology researcher Andrija Puharich. Hoffberger assisted in the labor and gave birth to her second daughter, Athena.

“The energy of birth is so similar to the energy of death,” Hoffberger said. “There is a calm. Taking that first breath is a bit like taking the last breath.

In the early 1980s, when Hoffberger, now divorced for the second time, returned to Baltimore with her daughters and began planning to build a museum dedicated to self-taught artists, Baltimore’s entrenched cultural elite called her on. initially dismissed as a dilettante.

At the time, outsider art, much of which was created by homeless, mentally ill or incarcerated people, was considered a curiosity. And the woman who runs this institution? The rambunctious New Age mystic with no experience in the art world who described her vision for her new museum as “uterine”?

Hoffberger’s third husband, the late LeRoy Hoffberger, told The Sun in 1995 that Baltimore cultural leaders urged lawmakers not to allocate public funds to the fledgling institution.

“Not only the [funding] pie already too small,” said LeRoy Hoffberger, “it wasn’t even good art.

Moreover, these leaders reasoned wrongly, the museum already had an angel — the director’s new husband. LeRoy Hoffberger was a wealthy lawyer whose family owned a brewery and a stake in the Orioles.

An unflattering profile of Rebecca Hoffberger appeared in the New York Times in 2000 noted the 27-year age difference between the couple. He commented on Hoffberger’s cleavage and noted that she wore a heart-shaped diamond ring “the size of a York Peppermint Pattie”.

The museum’s new director, the article implied, was little more than a chorister with a dad.

These assumptions were not simply demeaning and unfair. Hoffberger said they were also wrong.

“LeRoy was always enthusiastic and supported me wholeheartedly,” she said, “but he wouldn’t donate to the museum until I raised 90% of the money we had. need. Once I did that, he was very, very generous.

Those who meet the big-hearted, hot-headed Hoffberger for the first time sometimes underestimate her. They can think of her as the embodiment of Fifi, the giant pink poodle on wheels who is a staple in the Kinetic Sculpture Race. They lack the attributes of the Hoffberger Bulldog: practicality and insight, near-obsessive attention to detail, formidable drive.

“People can underestimate Rebecca the first time they meet her,” said AVAM Board Chairman Christopher Goelet. “They rarely make that mistake a second time.”

One example: the mirrors and mosaics on AVAM’s eye-catching facade were installed by at-risk and incarcerated teenagers who learned job skills from master craftsmen. Hoffberger secured federal funds and corporate and private donations for the 14-year project.

Here’s another: In 1992, Hoffberger somehow gained critical museum patronage in Baltimore from a cosmetics magnate in England.

According to John Maizels, founder of Raw Vision Magazine, Hoffberger had a hunch that Anita Roddick, the late human rights and environmental activist who founded The Body Shop, a retailer of natural skincare products skin, would instinctively grasp AVAM’s potential. But years of pleading have not resulted in a reunion.

Finally, Roddick visited Baltimore in 1992. But his schedule was packed when he arrived. His only possible availability was early the next morning.

Overnight, Hoffberger pulled off a coup.

“Anita came in at 7 a.m. and walked into this big room,” Maizels said. “A hundred local leaders were already waiting for him. She was very moved and became a strong supporter of AVAM.

Over the next quarter century, AVAM flourished and opponents were silenced.

“Rebecca is lifting us up,” said Freeman Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who is also about to retire. “When we go to this museum, we have thoughts that we have never had before. We are forced to examine our own assumptions. Who gives us more hope than Rebecca?

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Although Hoffberger will no longer lead AVAM after this train is coming, she hasn’t finished with the museum yet. She will work part-time during the summer to facilitate the transition to her successor. Among its objectives: to raise $25 million for an endowment that will help ensure the future of AVAM.

Paradoxically, the one who has tried so hard to ensure the future of AVAM has been less vigilant in ensuring her own. For the first 15 years of Hoffberger’s tenure at AVAM, she worked for free. She and LeRoy Hoffberger divorced nearly a dozen years ago.

“Money will be really tight,” Hoffberger acknowledged, “but I will sell my house and I intend to live simply. I still have more than a lot and I’m grateful.

Besides, this flying saucer is on its way.

Hoffberger’s next project will be a play about the little-known friendship between author Mark Twain and inventor Nikola Tesla that will merge his two passions for art and science.

“I’ve been waiting 37 years to write this piece,” she said. “I know all aspects of it. It unfolded before me scene by scene.

“I received a vision when I founded this museum. And I received another vision of this room.

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