First published: Winter 2015
John Maizels: Founding the American Visionary Art Museum is an amazing achievement. What was your initial impetus and inspiration for the creation of AVAM and how did you feel it should differ from the Collection de l’Art Brut, which was the main museum of stature in the field of Outsider and self-taught art?
Rebecca Hoffberger: In 1984, I was working with a programme founded to give people with histories of mental illness the work and living skills to live independently. It made me realise just how terrible narrow labels for human beings were, how complex and wonderfully individual we all are, and what a challenging gauntlet life is in general. As a firm believer in intuition being the essence of all manner of creative genius, I had an idea for a museum based on its fruits in broad spectrum manifestation – art, science, engineering, humour, social justice – invention in multiple realms – garnered from earth’s most remarkable “evolutionaries” – historic and living.
King’s Mouth, Wayne Coyne, 2015, mixed media installation, photo Dan Meyer
More knowledgable folks than I then said, “That kind of art sounds a lot like Dubuffet’s Art Brut Museum.” So I wrote to the fabulous Genevieve Roulin and Michel Thévoz and got permission to make a short documentary on that gem of a museum with my friend, filmmaker Donna Matson. Visiting there, I was fast smitten with the honesty and fierce imagination of the art and adored the artist bios that were far more interesting than those in traditional museums.
My co-founder, ex-husband and close friend, LeRoy Hoffberger, is an avid collector of German Expressionists, and he saw great value in my assertion that art brut was a profound source of inspiration for the Expressionists and many artists hungering for artistic authenticity. But from the start, I never wanted AVAM to be simply an Outsider Art museum. I feared primary emphasis on art as object – even rare fabulous works – would minimise the actual vision that lay behind what powered this intuitive art that had so much to say. I then saw repeated thematic patterns in the world's various collections of Outsider Art – the one most striking was the idealistic recreation of some personal, backyard Eden.