The American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore is the best example of how art is for everyone. This is a museum born to show off the creative spirit.
When you think of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, the first thing that comes to mind is probably a trip to the Aquarium, maybe the touristy shops or the water taxi to go visit Fort McHenry. What decidedly does not come to mind is an off beat art museum filled with treasures of visionary art from around the country. This is the American Visionary Art Museum and for us; it’s the main reason you’ll want to stop at the Inner Harbor.
The museum is made up of three historic buildings, as well as a small garden, all of which are filled to the brim with works by America’s best self-taught artists. From paintings and carved wood to art made with toothpicks, rags, or bits of found materials the works in the American Visionary Art Museum are inspired by life experiences and the “fire within” as the artists transform their dreams, loss, hope and ideals into powerful works of art.
In fact, there is so much art that the visit begins before you enter the museum doors. A full wall of the main building is covered in tiny mirrors and mosaic tiles and parked on the street is a full sized school bus, also covered in mosaic tiles and mirrors. On the hood of the school bus there is a trio of ceramic squirrels. There are also various ceramic swans filled with fake flowers adorning this bus. The mosaic bus might be a good way to understand the art at the American Visionary Art Museum. The artist had a vision, was compelled to create this thing, and here it is, for people to enjoy. While perhaps non-traditional, we guarantee that you’ll connect with a lot of the pieces in the collection.
As you walk inside the permanent collection is on the first floor of the main building with the second and third floors reserved for temporary exhibitions. When we visited, the exhibit was “The Big Hope Show” and all along the walls were inspiring quotes as a sort of common thread. While all the works were about hope, the results couldn’t have been more different. We stepped inside the mouth of a huge silver covered head made by artist Wayne Coyne. This was the “King’s Mouth” and we were sitting on a gigantic foam tongue watching a light show with hypnotic music. Next door, we admired handmade paper flowers by a political prisoner Herman Wallace in jail for being a member of the Black Panthers. The artist had decided to create his own dream house, one step at a time. The process for making the flowers was listed and a single carnation could take up to 12 hours to create.
The museum holds annual parades where artists can create a float or a bicycle of some sort to ride. Inside one of the other buildings you can see some of the floats as well as the banners used in the parades. Although, my favorite float of all is Fifi, a huge pink poodle made with yards and yards of tulle. Another favorite was a classic Cadillac covered in blue glass bottles. In the trunk was a sort of altar with flowers and figurines. All along one wall of the third building was a collection of wooden figurines animated by gears and cranks. You could walk along the wall and push a button to make the figures come to life. One of my particular favorites was the anteater who never quite caught the ant as it passed under his nose.
Outside there is a small garden with sculptures that is not to be missed, and you can’t leave the museum without a visit to the gift shop. This is one of the most fun museum stores I’ve ever seen. It’s packed with random little toys, tee shirts, hand bags, art, wall hangings, books, etc. There is even an old library card catalog with each drawer labeled something different. One of the drawers read “hamburgers” and when I pulled it open, sure enough, there was a small pile of miniature plastic hamburgers. This is the stuff of kindred spirits, permission to be creative and a true affirmation of happiness through art.
My favorite of the quotes lining the walls of the hope exhibit was one by Miguel de Cervantes “Too much sanity may be madness. And maddest of all, to see life as it is, and not as it should be.” This sums up the experience at the American Visionary Art Museum. A place born out of creativity, a need to create and share and communicate about this crazy human experience. We highly recommend a visit to the American Visionary Art Museum. By far the coolest part of the Inner Harbor in Baltimore.