[Nick Redding] A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to sit down in the office with Rebecca Hoffberger, the CEO, visionary, and founder behind the American Visionary Arts Museum. It was one of our first, true live recordings off-site at a historic building. Located in Baltimore, Maryland, the museum is housed in several historic structures. Our wide-ranging interview with Rebecca explored the background of the creation of this facility and why she chose a historic campus of buildings on Baltimore’s waterfront to tell this dramatic and important artistic story. Sit back as the arts and preservation combine for one fantastic tale told by Rebecca Hoffberger. This is PreserveCast.

From Preservation Maryland Studios in the historic podcast district of Baltimore, this is PreserveCast.

[NR] Hi, this is Nick Redding, and before we get to this week’s episode of PreserveCast, I wanted to ask you for your help. You see, PreserveCast costs money to produce. Money that Preservation Maryland has put forward to try and get this program and get this project off the ground. So far we’ve had a lot of success with that thanks to the listeners and to the support of people just like you. And we’re hoping that as the year-end approaches, some of you will consider making another gift or perhaps your first gift to help support this project. Since the beginning of 2017, we’ve produced a weekly podcast, which is no small feat I can assure you of that. And Steven who sits behind the desk here producing that and myself have put a lot of work in and a lot of effort into this to try and reach a broad cross-section, a very diverse collection of voices from all across the preservation spectrum to bring them all here and to put that information and that story forward. Of course, all of this content is produced for free. So like many other podcasts, we’re here at the end of the year to ask you and make you think about what would you be willing to pay for this kind of content were it on a Netflix, or Amazon, or Hulu. So whatever it might be, we greatly appreciate your support and we are so excited. We have a lot of really fun plans for 2018 to try and take this to the next step. In fact, just in the next few weeks, we’re going to be rolling out a standalone PreserveCast website along with its own social media presence to try and take this to the next level. This may be a project or a program empowered by Preservation Maryland, but this is a conversation that deserves it’s own platform and deserves to be at a national level and that’s where we hope to take it in the year ahead. Any little bit that you could do to help would be fantastically appreciated. You can go to our website at From there you can click to donate. We greatly appreciate your support and even if you can’t give today, share PreserveCast with a friend. Let them know about what you’ve been listening to. We greatly appreciate your support and hope to hear from you in 2018.

[NR] So this is Nick Redding and we’re doing one of our first live on-site versions of PreserveCast.

[Rebecca Hoffberger] Woohoo.

[NR] Yeah. And we’re sitting in the office of Rebecca Hoffberger, visionary and founder of American Visionary Art Museum. And we’re going to talk with her about the founding of this place and why she decided to take on this project in this historic campus of buildings. So Rebecca, what brought you to the decision that you were going to found this place? What brings you to that place in your life to make that decision that you’re going to take on something that challenging? Because that’s not a simple thing to do.

[RH] Well, I had always – already at that point had been a development director for meritorious causes. But I was also a great believer in intuition and its role in creative invention of all sort. Not just the arts, so to speak, but particularly in the world of science and invention in general. I really wanted a place that would be a temple to intuitive learning and inspiration versus learned learning at the feet of somebody else’s ideas. And really, I don’t get my ideas a little bit at a time. I get them wholly born. And I had the idea when I was working for the Department of Psychiatry at Sinai Hospital. But early on when I articulated it, someone said, “Oh, that sounds like Jean Dubuffet, the famous contemporary artist, modern artist, collection in Lausanne, Switzerland.” When he got fed up with the whole B.S. of the art world, he went back to his parents’ business of wine and champagne import-export. And the only art that didn’t seem self-conscious and commercialized was the work he collected from street people, mental patients, factory workers, transmediums, and he was so – he fell in love again with what it was to create when you’re not trying to impress someone else. Right?

[NR] That’s interesting.

[RH] And if you’ve heard of champagne brut, B-R-U-T, means raw champagne. So he didn’t want to use museum industry words, so he called it his Collection de l’Art Brut. But brut in English has a bad connotation that doesn’t mean raw.

[NR] Right. Yeah. We actually just did an episode on brutalism–

[RH] Oh, you did?

[NR] –and the architecture of raw concrete.

[RH] Ooh [laughter]

[NR] So this is a perfect–

[RH] Did you know what? Did you know that a concrete goes back– kind of the Rockefellers of Switzerland or because a man named Schmidt Heiny got the patent on how to make concrete for making garages really quickly. And his daughter is one of the most brilliant women in Baltimore. She was the first campaign manager to Senator Barbara Mikulski–

[NR] Just like you said this connotation with brut, in the English language, it’s a false consonant. It’s a people come to brutalism, and they think it’s this terrible type of architecture. In reality, it was not meant… it’s not brutal. It’s raw concrete. So you’re creating this, the Visionary Art Museum, in a similar respect to this museum that was then created, the one that you’re talking about in Europe?

[RH] Well, yeah. But where we differ from all the other maybe, I don’t know, almost 30 different kinds of collections. Besides being the biggest of outsider or visionary, we prefer the name or art brut – is that we organize our exhibitions not around just individual artists, with a few exceptions. But every year with those themes that are repeated in the visionary mentality so that every year… Before I opened the door in 1995, I knew the first 11 exhibitions thematically. And we’ve just been unfolding the whole time these large, large themes. I use the museum as a scam to get on the phone with anybody I’ve ever really admired. And we’ve worked with Nobels, and Archbishop Tutu was a partner and wept when he saw what we did with his words and loved it. Loved it.

[NR] And are you the biggest of your kind in the United States?

[RH] Yes. No. Not in the– everywhere.

[NR] In the world?

[RH] Yeah. There’s the Museum of the Unconscious in Brazil that was begun as a psychiatric collection, which we’re not. But back in 1952, the year I was born, really there are collections all over Europe, several in Brazil, in Moscow, etc., and we are the biggest. When I lectured at Tech Modern we were the biggest.

[NR] And so let me ask you this. Why Baltimore and why a historic building?

[RH] Well, I’m originally from here. And I had wonderful parents to take care of. But Baltimore has always been a cauldron of opposing ideas and energies. It’s on the first… I always love to say that on one hand, the first American Catholic saint was from here. But when Madalyn Murray O’Hair took prayer out of school she was in Parkville. And then when the Ouija board was patented it was from here. If you look at the role–

[NR] There’s a strange duality to everything in Baltimore.

[RH] Yes. Neither north or south. The first shots of the Civil War were right here. It was always this–

[NR] And sadly today we have this sort of a well-to-do, expanding, exciting Baltimore. And then we seem to have a Baltimore that’s left behind. There’s some dualities that we still suffer with this to this day.

[RH] Yeah, but you know what? It would be really a shame in a way of unfairness if wealthy people really were infinitely happier than poor people. But I look at a lot of unhappy wealthy people. We did an exhibition that was actually called Who Is Rich?: Treasures Of the Soul. Who Is Rich? And that goes back to a spiritual, rabbinic question where the answer (the wise answer) was “The few who are content with their portion.” I don’t know if you ever saw our exhibition on character that I worked with Archbishop Tutu and Rosie O’Donnell were involved. And the exhibition… I wanted people to focus on character. What are those attributes we admire most in ourselves and in others? And it was called “Race, Class, and Gender.” Three things that contribute zero to character because being a schmuck is an equal opportunity for everybody [laughter]. The point is you could be this magnificent human being – content, giving, loving – and have very little. You can be one S.O.B. with great talent, great wealth, and you’re a scrooge.

[NR] Well, let me ask you this. So let me re-phrase it a different way. A lot of museums, particularly art museums, seem to sort of pride themselves on the building that they can create to house their collections. It doesn’t always often end up in a historic building. Sometimes it’s new build, new construction. What lead you to the decision? Is it just because Baltimore is a place filled with wonderful, historic buildings? Or was that a part of the decision process to locate in a historic place?

[RH] No. I had the idea first and I went after the old… there’s a road up on Federal Hill which had a historic, old prison. And they had this Italianate, beautiful, brick faces of gargoyles on it. Ostend Steet. O-S-T-E-N-D.

[NR] Ostend. Yup.

[RH] Ostend Street. And so it was let out to bid, competitive bid. And I was friends with Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry’s and Jerry Greenfield at the time, and there was no franchise here yet in Baltimore. And I thought, “Great.” There were like these five jail cells with the toilet drain right in the middle and I said, “We’re gonna… with picnic tables we’ll make a restaurant, a Cafe Con Artiste. And I joked that you wouldn’t have to even get up  if you had beer [laughter] and have to go to the bathroom because everything was right there… that we would do that. And we got pretty far and we submitted. And by then, the London Sunday Times already picked up what a great idea it was. It was just an idea, right? But I knew how to sell it. And it went instead to this other group who was doing social work stuff. And I was very crestfallen. But they said, “Well how about this building?” Which was then known as the Trolley Works, the office for the Trolley Works, which was kind of a revival trolley. Not really hooked to anything, touristy thing. “Why don’t you go after this building?” Well, nobody [laughter] was going after this building because they knew that the city had backhoed a 3,000-gallon tank of Varsol. And that they had cracked it and that all these chemicals were in the soil.

[NR] Yeah, I don’t know what Varsol is, but it doesn’t sound good.

[RH] It’s a petroleum-like product. Well, that turned out to be for our advantage in the long run. So developers were very frightened because the EPA was going after everybody in the chain of ownership. And nobody wanted to jump into the chain, right? So this was kind of protected because this was kind of in no man’s land over here when we jumped in and decided to build. And [laughter] let me tell you the the funniest thing. Okay, so our store is in this curved part. The original 1913 building, which is one half of our main building, before it was the Trolley Works, it was the offices for the Baltimore Copper Paint Company. And one of the owners of that company was still alive. His name was Oliver Reader, very dapper, lovely man who had lots of history. So I got to meet Oliver Reader. Now why was the Baltimore Copper Paint Company such an important thing? It’s because they got the patent. Somebody found that if you put copper into maritime paint, no barnacles will ever grow. And so they had the corner on that. And so barnacle, scrape, scrape, scrape, was a big pain in the petusi. And so here’s this wonder paint that could keep it from growing. So that was their fortune. That was later bought out by the Jotun Paint Factory. But what I wanted to tell you is in 1913, a new graduate from the Maryland Institute designed this curved building which hugged the curve of Key Highway, which was there at that time too at the northeast corner of Federal Hill. And by 1914, there was more of a building here because you see it’s abruptly cut, right? It was struck by lightning, and half of the building burned down immediately. So what did we do? We put a three-ton whirligig, like “Kick me, lightning” head out there [laughter] right? We’ve had very good luck. And it goes 13 feet into the ground. So I think it’s the best lightning rod ever. So you know that the Academy Award and Building is actually the National Ward for Excellence for the Urban Land Institute, right? Did you know we were the first museum to ever win?

[NR] I didn’t know you were the first, but that’s pretty exciting.

[RH] It was really. I felt like Sally Fields, “They like me. They really like me.” [laughter] I went to Texas to get the award and–

[NR] So for people listening, what you’re describing is that you’ve blended both a historic building with a new structure connecting the whole campus?

[RH] Correct. And of the two architects, one was in my… I had another company that I just didn’t like their understanding of the project. So I had a woman in my office named Rebecca Swanston who lived up on Federal Hill, was trusted by the neighborhood, and was licensed, etc. But the first architect sent me Alex Castro, who had been the favorite student of Khan, from Louie Khan from Penn. But he had never built a building and he wasn’t licensed. And he was 50 years old. And when he saw what I had in my office, a room smaller than this, he wept. And I said, “Look, I really love the feeling you have for this art. Can I take you to lunch with Rebecca Swanston who’s in my carpool at [Friends School of Baltimore]?” We were both moms at the time. “And see if you could work together?” And then they met. And they both agreed that they would go home that night and come up with a design. And he said that night it was like he was being hit by lightning. And he drew this fibonacci from our entry that you – did you come in the main door? Up the ramp, and then it swirls into our central stair. And we were not offered this building yet. So the original idea was that we would come up and that we would have a sculpture garden on the roof looking out over the water. But it was a blessing when Federal Hill said, “Nothing can be higher than Federal Hill,” which was the top of this flagpole. They said, “Nothing can ever be higher than that.” And I said, “Well, then I can’t do it because the best visionary art is really big and I need big space.” They said, “No, we want you here. We will fight to get you this buildings.” This building right here. This warehouse. This was a horrible ’50s building, okay? So we had to go through so many approvals. We had to raise a certain amount of money every so often or we would have lost the negotiating priority.

[NR] So in total, how much did the project cost, to get this in the ground? And I know there’s probably a big amount you have to raise every year, but how much did it take just to get up and running?

[RH] No, no, no. But to do the land, it was actually cheaper to do a bigger site. Because had I done a roof – our circular stairwell was supposed to come out to the roof. But believe it or not, anything that you put with plants and things on the roof is extremely heavy, much more than people realize. That’s why even sedum roofs, or green roofs, you have to get all sorts of engineering done to even support them. So it’s not like you can just slap them up on your house or something, unfortunately. So I think it was a 5.6 equipped, and that was 27,000 square feet under roof at the time. That’s–

[NR] Pretty good.

[RH] –darn good. But I had the best builders. We did a competitive process because we had bond-bill funding. Although back then there were a lot of things really fighting me to keep me out of the art world. I mean, really nasty stuff. And so instead of doing the usual $1 of private-sector match to every dollar of bond-bill funding, I had to do five to one. Five to one! And I created a British charitable trust because right when I was about to lose the negotiating priority… I had dame Anita Roddick, the woman who founded The Body Shop who didn’t know me from Adam, but I just admired her. And from the moment we met, we could read each other’s thoughts. And she came into my windowless little office over at Harbor Court and said, “I’ve only been gobsmacked” (British term) “twice in my life. This is the third. What do you need?” And I went, “I need $500,000 by next week.” And she said, “Well, go speak with my husband Gordon. Because normally I would just say yes, but I’ve pissed him off on something before.” And so I had to go up to New Jersey, meet with him. Providentially, it was going to even be at their headquarters there. And I went with Gerald Hawkes from Turner’s Station who was the matchstick artist, very spiritual man and the first person who I let walk through our doors. [Then] followed by the whirligig maker, the farmer, and they became great friends. But she gave us that money and then eventually much, much more. And many other people were exceedingly generous. Zanvyl Krieger hated the idea of museums, had no interest. But Bob Hiller really encouraged him to listen. And he had just given the biggest grant to [Johns] Hopkins ever at that time, $50 million for the Krieger Mind/Brain Institute. So they had their money. And the head of the Mind/Brain Institute went to lunch with all of us, listened to my idea and he as a mensch said, “Zan, give her money because people will understand the connection much more between mind and brain with what she’s doing than what we’re doing.”

[NR] Yeah. And I think, in a sense, it’s the same way with preservation. People understand better why buildings and places matter when individuals and organizations like yours use them than us just talking about them, right? There’s something to be said for the use of space and showing people why these places matter and that they still have value and they can still tell stories. Because who would have thought that a trolley barn and other buildings like this – a paint warehouse – could tell this really important not just national story, but a worldwide story. A story of humankind.

[RH] Well, it goes back– I mean, there’s so much history-laden to date. I’m really glad you’re getting to it. But people don’t realize is where the gallery is in the Harbor was water. And so 24/7, pumps are working to keep that garage viable. If they were to quit for even like two days, it would be a disaster for the gallery. So the water went up to actually where Water Street is. And so most of that part of the harbor is just filled. But here Federal Hill was a real hill. It’s tunneled. I can tell you that when people who are even a little bit younger than me, they used to play in the tunnels. And when you see the basketball court at the southwestern corner, there is this stone wall built. That was the original entry into the tunnels. And the tunnels had cannonballs in them and some of them were a little collapsing. But they went up into at least two of the Montgomery Street townhouses. So there are all of these War of 1812 military tunnels. But the hill, even though it was fortified, was still a real hill. But our property, if you go down 10 feet you get the purest, whitest sand you’ve ever seen. It’s really remarkable. So this was original land always. So… I [would] bake cakes, bake cookies, and when the E.P.I. guys would come over… because I was so worried that it would be a kazillion dollars to remediate the soil and whatever. It’s always a human being that interprets a regulation. So we said, “Well, could we hand aerate?” Because it was very smelly with Varsol when we got the tank  removed. And we had tons of volunteers just hand aerate the soil and then we got the OK and a few more cakes later [laughter] signed off on.

[NR] So it is doable. I mean I think the other point too, here we hear a lot of people who say, “Well, this site can’t be fixed because it has lead or it has asbestos or it has this or it has that.” But you’ve been able to show that all those things can be overcome with a little bit of ingenuity, I suppose.

[RH] Absolutely. Absolutely. So the design… and then Becky just loved it as well. Alex Castro had that fibonacci swirl dived in. And even the curves of our cafe balcony and the other retaining wall around the whirligig, it’s as if you were to fly above like a bird, they are concentric circles that interact with each other. And if you notice, there’s like a fin that we’ve now covered. Our mosaic walls are just beautiful but they constitute the largest apprenticeship of incarcerated kids in the United States. We started out apprenticing the Southern High School kids that had a 72 percent drop out rate when we first got here. Because like, “Hello. We have the help.” And we said give us your toughest cases. And every single one of those kids stayed in school. Not one of them dropped out.

[NR] And what you’re referring to for the people who are listening is that the walls themselves, how would you describe them? I want to hear you describe them.

[RH] Well, we had… the architecture had these three-story curved walls. And we won the National Award for Curved Walls and the National Award for Excellence and also for the concrete, for the pavers… we won all these obscure but in builder’s speak, major awards at the national level. But from the very beginning, I can show you the original invitation… We didn’t have money to build an architecture model of what we wanted. So the chef at Harbor Court at that time, the pastry chef made a five-foot model, which I’ll pull for you in a little bit for your archives. Here it is. So [this] was the Whiskey Warehouse. This was the original building. You can see the fin comes out there where we now have the dawn. But none of this was built, other than this building and this building, but covered in jellybeans for the idea of the mosaics.

[NR] Very cool.

[RH] Isn’t that something? And so it was so big. So we served it at the groundbreaking with Anita Roddick there, Zanvyl Krieger there, Senator Mikulski there. And then what we didn’t eat went over to the Children’s Home. It was something. It was huge. So that was the original groundbreaking.

[NR] So let me ask you this. What can people expect next? Have you completely outgrown this campus? Is there going to be more construction, more buildings, campuses elsewhere?

[RH] Well, for 15 years, we’ve been offered various sites in California. When our good friends at the Exploratorium had to move out of their historic… they were for years and years in a temporary building from the old World’s Fair in San Francisco, which I loved by the way. And then they weren’t allowed to stay there anymore and they were offered two piers at a similar thing to like our Inner Harbor, very modern. And they offered us one pier. But it’s like a kite can only fly really high when it’s tautly held. And so I went 15 years without taking one day’s vacation to keep this place going. We’re now 22. We didn’t do it last year but I’m going to go, hopefully again, this year. But it takes a lot of dedication to just keep it debt-free, even with all our success. This is a museum that with our 100-plus weddings and corporate events we earn over two and a half times the national average of percentage of our earned income. So we’ve maximized, pretty much that but we still need monies given.

[NR] How big of an operation is it on an annual basis?

[RH] It’s just under three million right now. In some years, if we’re doing a capital project it may go as high as 3.2, but it’s usually 2.9… in that range. But if I go, I know director’s going to want a very professional fundraiser. They want to have a secretary, all the things that I don’t have. But we have an extraordinary staff. They deserve to be paid a lot more but they just stay because this is a museum that makes… every day, you can see the impact it has on people. People are saying, “Oh, my God. It’s my favorite place in the world,” or “The most healing place I’ve ever been.” That kind of thing. So I don’t know… Our board totally agrees that until we’ve raised our endowment goals here, which are very modest. It’s 25 million. If you know anybody named Aaron Aardvark, we’d like to keep the A in front of American Visionary Art Museum if possible. We’re trying to sell the name for the opportunity for that [laughter]. But we have no debt. None. We have old buildings–

[NR] Which is fantastic.

[RH] Yeah. It’s fantastic.

[NR] Well, let me ask you this, though. I mean, I’m curious what you consider yourself because you sort of seem like you are multi-disciplinary in a variety of different ways. You describe yourself in a lot of different ways. But do you consider yourself a preservationist? Having done this kind of work? Because a lot of people who engage in preservation work never consider themselves as such. It’s sort of a bad moniker that we’ve created because a lot of people do the work. You are a preservationist. I have no problems calling you that because of what you’ve done here. But do you consider yourself as such?

[RH] Yeah. I have to say, it’s very interesting. I’ve been called in to review – before the museum doors even opened – historic collections. One at the last leprosy colony in the United States. And it was over 100 years old and I was ready for unbelievable stuff. And I get there and the people who, in a well-meaning way – think of art as the person who sat next to them in the seventh grade who [draws] really good horse heads or flowers – had denuded the collection of almost everything of interest. No embroidered clothes, no personalized illustrated diaries, all the things that would come from having people there for 100 years. And same with St. Elizabeth’s, they paid me to come in when they wanted to do a museum and they’re the oldest mental health, mental hospital in America. I mean they go back to the Civil War, right? And some very famous people live there, one still does, the one who tried to kill Reagan. And I cannot… I said, “There is no way.” They showed me not very many things. So there’s no way that you had 100-plus years of people a year and you have this little. And I said, “Show me your closets. I mean there’s got to be tons of stuff.” “Nope, nope, nope.” And they never put it together. I said, “Well, let me speak to your director of housekeeping.” And they said, “Oh yeah, so-and-so has a little store down on the Eastern Shore.” And I went, “Oh, my God,” because most of the time for places like that it was a one-way trip. So they brought with them their little possessions, their wedding dress… and they had beautiful old photos, I mean old buttons, old shoes, shoe hooks, wedding rings. I said, “Where is all their stuff?” and they didn’t even think what had happened. It was like it took me like a day of saying, “This cannot be.” And then I realized exactly what had happened. So as far as preservation goes people think, “Oh, you must be into contemporary stuff and everything,” and what I would say, “The best preservation often comes from benign neglect, like the best preservation often comes from benign neglect.” You almost hope for that because–

[NR] Yeah, yeah. Poverty creates good preservation sometimes.

[RH] Exactly.

[NR] Yeah.

[RH] And I’m always looking for places where they didn’t clean out everything.

[NR] Right.

[RH] Some of the most amazing–

[NR] Yeah, sanitized history, there’s something boring about it.

[RH] Well, also you have a human being who goes, oh… or if it is sexual in any way, there are people who just, “Oh, got to get rid of this.” So a lot gets thrown out and if we could go back in time and keep every building that was ever in existence from let’s say 1900 on Charles Street, we would have one of the biggest draws on the whole East Coast and that’s the truth.

[NR] Yeah.

[RH] So I see that’s heartbreaking for me.

[NR] Yeah.

[RH] I mean some of the most gorgeous buildings are gone. I think one of your questions before was, “What building do you love the most?” and I adore – because it’s almost cartoon-y for me – the Macht Building. Do you know the Macht Building?

[NR] Mm-hmm. Yeah.

[RH] I love that building [laughter] with all the little naked statues holding it up and I don’t know why. It reminds me of Fractured Fairy Tales the way that it’s done.

[NR] Well, this has been a fantastic opportunity just to get to sit and talk with you and understand the story behind the story because I think a lot of people, as you say, love this place. I mean I think anybody you bump into who is has been here has fallen in love with it. I don’t know anybody who’s had a bad experience here. But it’s exciting for us to hear about the story behind it and what brought you to this specific place and all the trials and tribulations that go along with it because there’s a lot of difficulty with re-purposing historic buildings. But we’re so pleased you have and want to thank you for it.


You don’t need to open a history book to find us and available online from iTunes and their Google Play Store as well as our website: This is PreserveCast.

This podcast was developed under a grant from the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, a unit of the National Park Service. Its contents are the sole responsibility of Preservation Maryland and the Maryland Milestones Heritage Area and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the National Park Service or the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training.

This week’s episode was produced and engineered by Ben and Stephen Israel. Our executive producer is Aaron Marcavitch. Our theme music is performed by the band Pretty Gritty. You can learn more about them at their website:, on Facebook, or on Twitter @PG_PrettyGritty.

To learn about Preservation Maryland or this week’s guests, visit: While there, you can check out our blog and learn about what’s current in historic preservation. We’re also on Facebook, Instagram, Flickr, and Twitter @PreservationMD. And of course, a very special thank you to our listeners. Keep preserving!

Show Notes

The American Visionary Art Museum is just one of Maryland’s awesome museums! To learn more about art museums and history museums and everything in between in Maryland, visit the state’s official list of museums and be sure to listen to all of our PreserveCast episodes about museums.