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LGBTQ ally Hoffberger stepping down at American Visionary Art Museum

Iconic Baltimore attraction looking for a successor

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The Divine statue is a tribute to the gay actor and Baltimore native that was championed by outgoing AVAM founder and director Rebecca Hoffberger.

A longtime ally of the LGBTQ community is leaving her job in the arts world.

After 26 years as founder, director and primary curator of the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, Rebecca Alban Hoffberger disclosed this week that she will retire in March of 2022.

In 1992, Congress designated the museum as a “national repository and educational center for visionary art,” which is defined as works “produced by self-taught individuals, usually without formal training” which arise from “an innate personal vision that revels foremost in the creative act itself.”

Rather than focusing on works of visionary art as objects unto themselves, Hoffberger curates exhibits that combine art, science, philosophy, and humor, always with an underlying focus on social justice and betterment. AVAM’s exhibits have explored themes ranging from hunger, public health and climate change to sleep and what makes us smile.

Throughout her tenure, Hoffberger has supported LGBTQ artists by featuring their work and stories in her themed exhibits and adding their work to the museum’s permanent collection. While other museums have only recently begun to call attention to their efforts to support Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Access, AVAM has done it all along.

One of AVAM’s best known and most photographed pieces by an LGBTQ artist is British sculptor Andrew Logan’s 10-foot-tall statue of Divine, a tribute to the gay actor and Baltimore native who starred in drag in “Pink Flamingos,” “Multiple Maniacs,” “Hairspray” and other movies by filmmaker John Waters.

Logan, whose paintings and sculpture fill the Andrew Logan Museum of Sculpture between England and Wales, has two other works at AVAM: Icarus, a figure suspended above the main staircase, and the Cosmic Galaxy Egg, an eight-foot sculpture on a plaza outside the museum’s Jim Rouse Visionary Center.

Other LGBTQ artists highlighted at AVAM include painter James Snodgrass; Judy Tallwing McCarthy, an Apache leatherwoman and multi-media artist who won the first International Ms. Leather contest in 1987; Andrey Bartenev, a Russian performer, sculptor and experimentalist who won the Alternate Miss World pansexual beauty pageant in 2018 as Miss UFO; and psychic and “consciousness researcher” Ingo Douglas Swann, co-founder of the Stargate Project that was launched to investigate psychic phenomena in military and domestic intelligence applications.

Local visionary talents include woodworker Bob Little; Bob Adams, a multi-media artist and one of John Waters’ Dreamlanders, whose photographs, scrapbooks, shrines and other assemblages have been featured in three AVAM exhibits, and Bob Benson, a popular classical music radio host who became a prolific visual artist later in life, responsible for the fart machine in the museum’s Flatulence exhibit; the blinged-out Universal Tree of Life visible on Key Highway (made with Rick Ames and David Hess); the ocean beneath Icarus and the sky above him, and many other creations.

The museum has supported the LGBTQ community in other ways as well. It was one of the first places in Maryland to offer a welcoming setting for same-sex weddings, even before they were legal in the state. Couples would get married in the District of Columbia, where it was legal, and then come to AVAM’s Meditation Chapel to have a second wedding and reception.

One of Hoffberger’s year-long exhibits was called “Race, Class and Gender: 3 Things that Contribute “0” to CHARACTER (Because being a Schmuck is an equal opportunity for everyone!), also known as The Character Show. As part of that 2005-2006 presentation, she wrote an essay entitled “gender,” in which she explored the ways people in different countries think about transgender citizens; “intersex” children born with both male and female reproductive organs; gender “verification” for athletes; gender fluidity, the “gender rights” movement and related subjects.

“Every human being is precious,” she argued at the end. “We are all, all of us, part of God’s family. We all must be allowed to love each other with honor.”

The museum’s shop, Sideshow, has a gay owner whom she recruited from Chicago, Ted “Uncle Fun” Frankel, and is filled with gay-friendly books and gifts that reflect his sensibility. TripSavvy.com, a website last month named AVAM the LGBTQ+ Best Hidden Gem in Maryland. Readers of The Baltimore Sun just chose it as Baltimore’s Best Museum and Best Tourist Attraction.

In announcing her departure, Hoffberger said she loves her time at the museum but wants to pursue other interests, including writing a play about the close friendship between inventor Nikola Tesla and writer Mark Twain.

“I consider myself the luckiest woman I know,” she said. “It has been such a fantastic privilege to imagine, birth and to help our American Visionary Art Museum flourish over these past decades, alongside the most wonderful hardworking staff imaginable. Every beautiful thought, opportunity to communally inspire some greater good, we have joyfully undertaken.”

Her final curated exhibit as director will be “Healing & The Art of Compassion (And The Lack Thereof!),” scheduled for Oct. 9, 2021 to Sept. 4, 2022. A farewell gala and fundraiser has been set for Nov. 20. The museum’s board has appointed m/Oppenheim Executive Search to help find her replacement.

Waters, a big fan of the museum, is one of many who think Oppenheim doesn’t have an easy assignment.

“Rebecca Hoffberger’s name is almost synonymous with the word ‘irreplaceable,” the writer and filmmaker said in an email message.

“She has given the world the perfect museum to celebrate Baltimore’s reputation as a welcoming home to eccentric artistic outsiders and crackpot personalities,” he said. “The statue of Divine watches over the international visiting guests with benevolence and the same understanding Rebecca has for all artists who don’t fit in. Rebecca is passionate, obsessive in her drive, and nobody else could have made this place become such a major tourist destination. And now to find a successor? Who knows? We need another Glinda, the Good Witch of the Visionary. She’s out there somewhere.”

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LULAC Lambda announces 2021 scholarship awards

Castro, Javier Rodriguez win $1,000 honors

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Brian Castro and Victor Javier Rodriguez are this year’s LULAC award winners.

The D.C.-based LGBTQ Latinx organization LULAC Lambda has announced it has selected two D.C. residents bound for graduate studies in foreign affairs and higher education to receive its 2021 annual scholarship award.

“For a fourth year in a row, LULAC Lambda will provide scholarships to outstanding scholars who come from our LGBTQ+ Latinx community,” said Erik Rodriquez, the LULAC Lambda president, in a statement released by the group. “Our scholarship program will help these scholars achieve their academic goals and reduce their student debt,” Rodriquez said.

The statement says one of the two scholarship awards, for $1,000, will go to Brian Castro, who will begin studies for a master’s degree in the fall of 2021 at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service.

“The generous scholarship provided by LULAC Lambda will complement my studies by going directly into my tuition costs,” Castro said in the statement. “Though I have been a resident of Washington, D.C., working full-time at a leading public health consulting firm, I am grateful to have received the support from an organization that is also committed to social justice,” he said.

The other scholarship, for $1,300, will go to Victor Javier Rodriguez for his doctoral work in education at Florida State University. The LULAC Lambda statement says Javier Rodriquez’s academic interest lies in “exploring the relationship between school communities and districts’ implementation of anti-racist practice and student success.”

In his own words, Javier Rodriquez said, “A long-term career goal of mine is to affect change at the federal level through the United States Department of Education, in which I would work to address our nation’s education crisis by advocating for equitable policies and practices that improve the outcome for all our students, especially those who are most vulnerable.”

LULAC Lambda says it was founded in October 2014 “to mobilize and strengthen the LGBTQ+ and Latinx communities of Washington, D.C. through community and civic engagement.” It is one of 1,000 chapters across the country affiliated with the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the nation’s largest and oldest Latinx volunteer-based civil rights organization, the group’s statement says.

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Missing gay man found ‘alive and well’

Police say Richard ‘Rick’ Woods found in good health

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Richard G. ‘Rick’ Woods, a 65-year-old gay man, was found alive and well.

D.C. police announced on Friday that Richard G. ‘Rick’ Woods, a 65-year-old gay man who police said was reported missing and last seen on July 14, has been located. But the announcement doesn’t provide information on where he was found or why he went missing.

Friends who know Woods say he operated for many years an antique wood furniture restoration business in various locations in D.C. The most recent location of his business, friends said, was in Georgetown a short distance from where police said he was last seen on the 1600 block of Wisconsin Avenue, N.W.

“MPD does not publicly disclose the circumstances surrounding a missing person and how they are found, however we do release their flyer as well as a notification when they are located,” said D.C. police spokesperson Brianna Burch. “Mr. Woods was found in good health,” Burch told the Blade.

Police sought help from the public in their initial announcement that Woods was missing. The announcement said he was reported missing to police on Friday, July 23.

Logan Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner and LGBTQ rights advocate John Fanning, who said he has been friends with Woods for many years, said he was delighted to hear Woods was found in good condition.

“Rick is known by many in our community,” Fanning told the Blade at the time Woods was reported missing. Fanning said he and others who know Woods stand ready to provide support for him should he be in need of such support.

The Blade couldn’t immediately reach Woods for comment.

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Some D.C. gay bars to require proof of COVID vaccination

Action prompted by mayor’s order reinstating masks indoors

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Adams Morgan’s A League of Her Own is among the area queer bars requiring proof of vaccination for entry.

At least six D.C. gay bars announced last week on social media that they will require patrons to show proof that they have been vaccinated for COVID-19 as a condition for being admitted to the bars.

They include the Logan Circle area gay bars Number Nine and Trade, which are operated by the same co-owners; the Adams Morgan gay sports bars Pitchers and A League of Her Own, which are also operated by the same owner and share the same building; the 17th Street, N.W. gay bar JR.’s; and the U Street, N.W. gay bar The Dirty Goose.

The six bars, which also offer dining service, announced their proof of vaccination requirement shortly after D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser on Thursday, July 29, issued a new order reinstating the city’s requirement that facial masks be worn inside all businesses and other public establishments.

The mayor’s order applies to all vaccinated and unvaccinated people over the age of two. It took effect at 5 a.m. Saturday, July 31.

At a July 29 news conference, Bowser pointed to a new U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance issued two days earlier recommending that fully vaccinated people resume wearing masks indoors in places where transmission of the coronavirus is considered “substantial” or “high.”

The mayor said that, at the advice of her public health experts, she decided to issue the new order to help curtail the rising number of COVID cases in D.C. over the past month or more due to the rapid spread of the virus’s Delta variant, which is surging throughout the nation. Like other parts of the country, Bowser and D.C. Department of Health Director Dr. LaQuandra Nesbit said people who are unvaccinated in D.C. make up nearly all of the newly infected cases.

“I know D.C. residents have been very closely following the public health guidelines, and they will embrace this,” Bowser said in referring to the new mask requirement.

The four-page order released by the mayor’s office, similar to the city’s earlier mask requirements, allows indoor patrons of restaurants and bars to remove their masks while “actively” eating or drinking.

But some representatives of restaurants and bars have pointed out that other jurisdictions, including Maryland and Virginia, have followed the CDC’s initial policy of making mask wearing a recommendation rather than a requirement.

“Mayor Bowser’s announcement that nightlife hospitality patrons must wear a mask indoors when not ‘actively eating or drinking’ renders the reinstated mandate essentially unenforceable and results in the rule being reduced to a largely theatrical requirement,” said Mark Lee, director of the D.C. Nightlife Council, a local trade association representing bars, restaurants, nightclubs, and other nightlife related businesses.

“The greatest disappointment for many venue operators and staff, however, is that the mayor’s decision does not allow an option for establishments to admit only fully vaccinated patrons and be exempt from the mandate, as a number of other jurisdictions across the country have done,” Lee said.

John Guggenmos, co-owner of the bars Trade and Number Nine, told the Washington Blade he and his co-owners adopted the proof of vaccination policy as an added means of protecting the safety of both patrons and employees of the two bars.

“We’re hopeful that this will be in effect for just a few weeks or a month or two,” Guggenmos said. “Our patrons have always been very supportive,” he said in referring to the city’s public health directives last year and early this year in which masks were required up until May of this year.

Guggenmos said Trade and Number Nine would allow an alternative to the vaccination requirement if patrons provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test conducted within the previous three days of their admission to the bars.

In its social media postings, Pitchers and A League of Her Own said their proof of vaccination requirement was based on the concern for the health of their patrons and staff.

“We will require proof of a COVID vaccination until further notice at Pitchers/ALOHO and masks per the mayor,” a Facebook posting says. “We take guidelines and the health of our patrons and staff very seriously. We will accept a picture or hard copy of your COVID vaccination card,” it says. “No exceptions, no arguing, no talking to the manager.”

Tammy Truong, owner of the gay bar Uproar Lounge at 639 Florida Ave., N.W., told the Blade the bar has no immediate plans to require proof of vaccination as a requirement for admission, but Uproar will fully comply with the mayor’s order requiring indoor masks.

Justin Parker, co-owner of the nearby gay bar The Dirty Goose at 913 U St., N.W., told the Blade he and his staff decided on July 30 to also put in place a requirement that patrons show either proof of vaccination or proof of a negative COVID-19 test within the past five days. He said a five-day window for the COVID test, which the CDC allows in some cases, was chosen rather than a three-day requirement to accommodate people who may not be able to get tested during weekends.

Owners of other D.C. queer bars couldn’t immediately be reached. But the Blade could not find any announcements by the other bars as of Friday afternoon that they planned to put in place a proof of vaccination requirement.

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