Have you been to the American Visionary Arts Museum? It’s unlike any other art museum you have ever visited. It houses a large permanent collection of artwork created by people who work outside the main of the art community. Many, like the nameless Ukrainian holocaust survivor and mental ward patient who produced a painting a day, are coping with mental illness, their fixations driving their work. Others are fully functioning members of society who produce unbelievable pieces — for whimsy, therapy, financial gain, or some combination of the three.
Of course, the items borne from an obsessive attention to detail fascinate us: the enormous model of the Lusitania made entirely of toothpicks. The throne of bottle caps. The dress crocheted to represent a horse. The 7-panel painting of thousands of people, reminiscent of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, but so much more ephemeral.
Beyond that, there are all the stories. People who had normal lives, suffered a psychic break, and ended up on the streets doing their art. People in asylums. People living without electricity or running water. Artists, exorcising their demons over and over via their art. Baltimore gets its fair share of representation, but this is much more than a display of local talent.
The AVAM has three buildings. The main building houses the permanent collection as well as some special exhibitions, the store, and a cafe on the third floor. I’m still confused about how you get into the cafe if you’re not paying to see the museum, but maybe you just don’t. The store has a wide collection of books, art, gizmos, and reading glasses (Get it? Glasses! At the Visionary Arts Museum!). The Tall Sculpture Barn is mostly storage and also a venue space. On our visit last weekend, the middle of the floor was occupied by a large chess set of sculpted metal angels. And the Jim Rouse Visionary Center holds several exhibits: whirligigs, Baltimore painted screens, the world’s first robot family. Also shown are some of AVAM’s entries in its own annual Kinetic Sculpture Race.
AVAM encapsulates what I like about Baltimore itself. People go to Washington to see the work of masters they have learned about in school. You go to Baltimore and AVAM for its idiomatic perspective on real life — warts, psychosis, and all.
American Visionary Arts Museum
800 Key Highway (Federal Hill)
Best for: People who like quirky and weird and are not put off by it; visitors to the city looking for something more than the Inner Harbor; curious kids.