I wrote last week about my visit to the Walter’s Gallery in Baltimore, describing how intrigued I was by their new exhibition. I also found their permanent collections, which I walked through briefly afterwards, commendably well done. Their collection is as traditional as can be, built up like the collections in so many museums today, by cultured millionaire men of the late 19th and early 20th century. It is particularly strong in ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman art, and includes works from all the favorite periods of the Western Art Cannon. Yet its presentation is far from conservative. The museum does a good job at including the newest scholarship, drawing connections to contemporary world, and combining the art works in unexpected ways that keep the visitor alert.
After my visit to the Walters that Sunday, I walked down to the Baltimore waterfront and meandered my way around the harbor to a totally different art-viewing experience: the American Visionary Art Museum. This was a museum with an unexpected relationship to art. It’s hard to describe. Even the information sheet I picked up at the museum’s entrance states that, “it is not easy to define ‘visionary art’. Like love, you know it when you’re in it.”
|AVAM, Baltimore. image source|
It’s not a museum of art history. It is not a museum with displays of any famous artists, or art movements. Its collection is not based on the Art Cannon. Neither is its collection folk art i.e. art in the tradition of a long inherited cultural practice. Instead, it is a museum that collects and presents artworks in a way that emphasizes the particular link between art and the artist’s soul. The works are moving not because they all display amazing technique or talent (although some of them certainly do) but because they are so intensely personal. A number of the artists whose works are on display suffer from a trauma or a disability, and their art practice is a way of coping, healing.
This way of organizing and collecting might be embarrassing or uncomfortable for some art historians and museum curators. Art therapy, or art as soul-work, especially from largely untrained artists, isn’t exactly high art. No matter its personal value to the artist, can it possibly have a commercial and aesthetic value anywhere near what a work of high art might have? The AVAM and its emotive exhibitions force skeptics to reconsider their preconceptions, and respect this type of work. I wish I could show some of the photos I might have accidentally/secretly taken with my iPod, but I noticed the “No Photos” sign on the way out, and I will respect the museum’s regulations. I’ll have to make do with sharing an image from the Museum’s own website and facebook page:
|Mad Growth, Beatrice Coron, made of cut tyvek|
There are museums, like the Walter’s that differ in degree from the traditional 20th century model. Then there are museums like the American Visionary Art Museum that differ in kind. It is places like the AVAM that remind us art historians to break out of our traditional sense of organization once in a while, and allow us to see art with a different pair of interpretative glasses.