Rebecca Hoffberger & AVAM - RAW VISION

Rebecca Hoffberger & AVAM

First published: Winter 2021/22

The founder-director of the American Visionary Art Museum is stepping down after 26 years. Here she tells Raw Vision’s Editor John Maizels about her journey

JM: What was your first experience of outsider art?

RH: My earliest upbringing was key to envisioning the American Visionary Art Museum (AVAM), as I had wonderfully and naturally intuitive parents, who gave me lots of time alone in nature. My first outsider artist encounter was “Bumblebee”, a large man who had been institutionalised and who would often hitchhike. The adults knew he was safe to pick up, and he would hum madly (thus the name) while cutting intricate paper dolls with your kid‘s name interspersed. Let out of the car, he would stand there smiling with the paper garland outstretched and for sale for a dollar. So unlike any adult I had ever met. Bumblebee was someone who also fascinated filmmaker John Waters from his own Baltimore childhood.

 


Hoffberger in 2020, in front of Johanna Burke’s Green Monkeys, photo: Chris Myers


JM: Were you always aware of the wider world in all its diversity?

RH: Mom introduced me to the writings of clairvoyant Edgar Cayce and, even as a little kid, wild birds would land on me and I loved being outside in all weather.

I could read well before going to school, and getting rheumatic fever – with its enormous leg pains – at age five taught me how to get out of my body to be able to sleep. I was always interested in big questions of reality and, from 13, was active at school and in the community on social justice issues, quick to mouth off to any teacher who bullied a student. Hiring at age 15 the only lawyer who’d work for free (who knew he was a communist?) to then win a class action suit to stop poor Baltimore City kids from being suspended from school indefinitely resulted in the birth of the Baltimore experimental high school, and my being voted the president of the Baltimore-Washington High School Coalition.

 


AVAM’s main building with its youth-at-risk mirrored mosaics exterior was completed in 1995 as an addition to its 1913 industrial building, photo: Chris Myers

My brilliant best friend and I would save our allowance and go to NYC to see Broadway plays and films, such as Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. There I met my second self-taught artist, Yanni Posnakoff, when I was just 13 (55 years later I would show his work at AVAM!).

I also had a very influential friend, Dr Doris Bright, who was the first African-American Baltimore County teacher. Doris had introduced me to the Theosophical Society when I was only 12 and, by 13, I had read all of Madame Blavatsky’s The Secret Doctrine.

All this to say that, from very early on, my friendships and cultural opportunities were extraordinarily diverse and set the stage for all the elements I still incorporate into AVAM – with the plus of humour. I have always adored laughing.

 


Inside AVAM’s Sideshow giftshop, photo: Chris Myers


JM: As a young person, you lived in Paris and then Mexico. What were your experiences and how important were those formative years to you?

RH: I applied to college at 15 and was accepted, but then received an invitation to study directly as apprentice to mime artist Marcel Marceau in Paris, after he had seen a film clip of me at a summer college programme when I was 13. So, at 16, I flew for my first time to Paris and, at 17, I married the star ballet dancer of the Paris Opera, later bringing him back to the USA to set up and choreograph for a more spiritual ballet company of his own. By 20, I had created our non-profit dance company, and then raised all the money and got famed designer Emilio Pucci to design our costumes for free. Sort of instinctual Judy Garland / Mickey Rooney stuff – always knowing how to have a specific dream and how to back engineer it to get there. From this, I understood how creative non-profits work.

My French dancer husband went off with a beautiful blonde Californian ballerina, and I had a daughter to raise, so I became a consultant to non-profits, including a nuclear physics fusion company in Princeton. Science and inventors had always been of huge interest to me, even in school – so another key evolutionary aspect of creative thought, coupled with a deep interest in broad spectrum spirituality (it was, remember, the sixties!), was affirmed. I later, at 25, married a man who was a physician, inventor, and researcher into the paranormal, whom I met through my friend Chris Bird, author of The Secret Life of Plants.

Moving to Mexico soon after, I became apprenticed to an extraordinary healer called Raquel, and helped deliver babies and learned enormous things about people, well-being, plants and nature. A few years later, back in the US, I served on the Board of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross Foundation, having always the passion to better understand the ultimate mysteries: birth, death and why?

 

This is an article extract; read the full article in Raw Vision #109