Rebecca Alban Hoffberger
MSA SC 3520-14534
Rebecca Alban Hoffberger was born on September 25, 1952, in a “leafy middle-class suburb” of Baltimore, Maryland to Allen, a mechanical engineer, and Peggy Alban, a homemaker.1 Even as a young child, Hoffberger exhibited a spirited and unique character – an individuality that was reflected in her interest and love for the unusual. Hoffberger’s father, Allen, once recounted how his daughter enjoyed storytelling and kept bumblebees and birds as pets.2
Storytelling and reading were certainly important aspects of Hoffberger’s childhood, particularly after a bout with rheumatic fever in the first grade left Hoffberger with painful episodes in her legs and periodic paralysis. During these periods of illness, Hoffberger found Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses particularly comforting and therapeutic. She also enjoyed more macabre literature, however, and was drawn to fellow-Baltimorean Edgar Allen Poe at an early age. Clearly indicating her leanings toward an intermingling of art and visionary intuition, Hoffberger remembered stating at 8 years old that she wanted to be an alchemist when she was older.3
Hoffberger once described meeting an unusual man with her father – an
event that shows the extent to which Hoffberger was open and receptive
to the unusual, even as a child. The man, who was named Bumblebee
because he communicated by making a buzzing noise in his throat, was hitchhiking
and showed interest in Mr. Hoffberger’s daughter. He pointed to the
young Rebecca, then 5, and gestured, asking what her name was. When
told that it was Rebecca, he began furiously cutting a piece of paper with
scissors, both of which he had kept in his overcoat. Hoffberger described
He looked up at me and I’ll never forget his smile. He unraveled this complex paper doll with my name interspersed into the doll, cut into it. It was the most wonderful thing. It was the first time I had ever met an adult who wasn’t much like my parents. And instead of feeling afraid or like, ‘Oh that poor man,’ I thought 'Oh cool.'4
In high school, Hoffberger continued to stand out, despite the fact that she did not enjoy school and used the recurring episodes of leg pain from her youth to avoid attending as much as possible. Her English teacher at Pikesville High School, Dick Walters, remembered the young Hoffberger, stating that, “Beccy [sic] was anything but normal. She was extremely intelligent, very creative, but she had her own axis.”5
At 16, Hoffberger left high school to travel to Paris and study under the famed mime, Marcel Marceau, becoming the first American ever to be accepted by the artist as an apprentice.6 This trip to Paris ushered in a series of whirlwind events that found Rebecca Hoffberger married to a ballet dancer and the mother of her first child, a daughter Belina, before she was 20 years old. Moving back to the United States before the birth of her daughter, Hoffberger held a series of jobs, acting as a development consultant to both a literary society and a ballet company, as well as holding a position at Colorado’s Boulder Free School. Eventually Hoffberger traveled to Mexico with her young daughter where she met and married her second husband, Andrija Puharich, a notable doctor who was then studying healing practices in cultural traditions. Although this marriage also ended, it produced Hoffberger’s second daughter, Athena. Interestingly, all three of her husbands were significantly older than she was, causing her to comment humorously that, “I like vintage men. I find if they don’t rot, they get much better.”7
Though she seemed to be drifting throughout the United States, luck, or perhaps Hoffberger’s uncanny intuitive attitude, brought her back to Baltimore where she began working in the development department of Sinai Hospital’s People Encouraging People, a program geared toward aiding psychiatric patients in their return to the community. It was while working with this program that Hoffberger 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.” After she married her third and final husband, LeRoy Hoffberger, however, her interest became a full-fledged brainchild.
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.9
The would-be museum founder found incredible support, both emotional and tangible, from her husband, who in 1985 sold his collection of German Expressionist art to help fund the building of the American Visionary Art Museum. Hoffberger was also fortunate to receive a sizable collection of art from Dr. Otto Billig, who had once studied under Freud and worked as Zelda Fitzgerald’s psychiatrist. Dr. Billig, due to his connections within the mental health field, gave Hoffberger 400 pieces of art created by mental patients.10
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.11
The American Visionary Art Museum opened on Friday, November 24, 1995, and although attendance numbers initially were not very high, the museum’s popularity has since soared, gaining international attention.12 The AVAM’s initial budget was $1.1 million, it operated with a staff of only 7 and owned a collection of 1,500 objects, most of which Hoffberger herself donated. Since then, the museum has grown to include a collection of 4,000 objects, runs with a staff of 18, operates on a budget of $2.3 million, and attracts nearly 70,000 visitors annually.13 Impressively, even in its first year, the AVAM earned more than twice the national average for museums in terms of percentage of earned operating income.14 Since opening, the museum has been recognized for “Best Museum Gala” two years in a row by Baltimore Magazine, and in 1998 it received the prestigious Urban Land Institute’s Award of Excellence.15 A. Eugene Kohn, a member of the selection committee loudly praised the AVAM: "The whole place speaks of creativity and excitement, but it also speaks of her [Hoffberger’s] passion. It’s one of those rare times when you’re not only impressed with the place but the person behind it".16
Indeed much of what drives the AVAM is Hoffberger’s dedication to giving
a voice to those “outside” the mainstream art world and it is the voices
of these visionary artists that make the AVAM such an enchanting and compelling
museum. The official definition of visionary art used by the AVAM
reads as follows and clearly details Hoffberger’s vision of creating a
new and unique environment for the display and encouragement of visionary
Visionary art as defined for the purposes of the American Visionary Art Museum refers to art produced by self-taught individuals, usually without formal training, whose works arise from an innate personal vision that revels foremost in the creative act itself.17
In her speech marking the opening of the museum, Hoffberger outlined the AVAM’s goals, stating that, "The American Visionary Art Museum opens its doors not in an effort to make war on academic or institutionalized-learning, but to create a place where the best of self-taught, intuitive contributions of all kinds will be duly recognized, explored, and then championed in a clear, strong voice."18
The discussion regarding the legitimacy of “outsider” or visionary art continues to be debated within artistic circles, but with the opening of the AVAM, such works have gained recognition and popularity. The AVAM has been described in many ways, most of which highlight its uniqueness and the individuality of the artists whose works are displayed there. Several accounts of the museum note the many items created from toothpicks, wire, bottle caps, seashells and beads, as well as highlighting the diversity among the artists, some of whom include prisoners, psychiatric patients, recovering addicts, tenant farmers, former bike-gang members and even a Holocaust survivor. Referred to as “a catalyst for social justice and change” a “treasure house for the public exploration of a wide-range of intuitive and artistic inventions” and as a “home to the spirit and power of the individual,” Congress has designated the AVAM the official American repository, museum and education center on outsider art.19
In keeping with its responsibility to educate on outsider or visionary
art, the AVAM has outlined seven educational goals, which include:
1. Expand the definition of a worthwhile life;
2. Increase awareness of the wide variety of choices available in life – particularly students;
3. Engender respect for and delight in the gift of others;
4. Encourage each individual to build upon his or her own special knowledge and inner strengths;
5. Promote the use of innate intelligence, intuition, self-exploration and creative self-reliance;
6. Confirm the great hunger for finding out just what each of us can do best, in our own voice, at any age;
7. Empower the individual to choose to do that something really, really well.20
For her work, Rebecca Hoffberger has received numerous awards, which include being honored by the Baltimore Urban League’s Award for Outstanding Involvement and Support for Equal Opportunity in 1995, as well as receiving multiple awards in 1996, including the Sarah’s Circle Award from the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, the Golda Meir Award Honoree, Israel Bonds and an Honorary Doctorate from the Maryland Institute College of Art.21 Impressively, she was also awarded the title of “Dame” for establishing field hospitals in Nigeria.22 In 1997 she earned the Open Your Mind Humanitarian Award from the Alliance for the Mentally Ill.23 Hoffberger received an award from the Urban Land Institute in 1998, the National Award for Excellence, and was also named one of Maryland’s Top 100 Women by The Daily Record.24 In 2004 Hoffberger received a second honorary degree, this time from Villa Julie College, where she was asked to give the commencement address for the school’s graduation ceremony.25 Most recently, Hoffberger was inducted into the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame in 2006.
Clearly Rebecca Alban Hoffberger has been able to create a museum that
not only showcases works of art, providing a haven for pieces that offer
a unique and different perspective on artistic work, but she has also used
the AVAM as a means through which to challenge and shape the greater community
1. Stephanie Mansfield, "The New Populism: 'Rebecca's World' of Visionary Art and Big, Splashy Parties," The New York Times, 19 April 2000.
2. Holly Selby, "A Visionary's Project; 'Outsider Art': Rebecca Hoffberger's American Visionary Art Museum Will House Creations Made by People Who Hover on the Fringes of Society," The Baltimore Sun, 19 November 1995.
3. Nancy Knisley, "A Childhood Taste for the Unusual; 'Readaholic': Rebecca Hoffberger Grew Up in a Family of Readers," The Baltimore Sun, 9 August 1998.
6. "Rebecca Hoffberger: Founder and Director, American Visionary Art Museum," In Celebration of Women. http://www.baltimore.org/women/bios Accessed on 26 June 2006.
12. "Rebecca Hoffberger: Founder and Director, American Visionary Art Museum."
13. Glenn McNatt, "
14. "Visionary Art Museum is Doing Just Fine," Editorial. The Baltimore Sun, 14 February 1997.
15. Mansfield; Edward Gunts, "Local Museum Honored for Design, Use of Land; Visionary Art Founder to Receive Award in Dallas," The Baltimore Sun, 9 October 1998.
17. American Visionary Art Museum, http://www.avam.org Accessed on 26 June 2006.
18. American Visionary Art Museum.
20. American Visionary Art Museum.
21. "Maryland's Top 100 Women: Rebecca Alban Hoffberger," The Daily Record, 1998, 39-40; "Rebecca Alban Hoffberger," http://speakforthem.org/rebeccahoff.html Accessed on 3 July 2006.
22. "Rebecca Hoffberger: Founder and Director, American Visionary Art Museum."
23. "Maryland's Top 100 Women."
24. "Rebecca Alban Hoffberger"; "Maryland's Top 100 Women."
25."Maryland's Top 100 Women."
Biography written by 2006 summer intern Amy Huggins.
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