Opinion Editorial: AVAM’s Misstep in Dismissing Jenenne Whitfield

Previous Story

The Internet is Exploding: 10 Must-Read Articles [...]

Next Story
Article Image

BmoreArt’s Picks: November 14-20

The first time I met Jenenne Whitfield, it was in the BmoreArt office and gallery space in lower Charles Village. She had requested the meeting, and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to get to know the new director of the American Visionary Art Museum (AVAM), a recent transplant from Detroit, and to hear her plans for the institution. This was the first time that anyone from AVAM had reached out and asked to meet with me and the BmoreArt team, especially notable because Whitfield was there to ask us our opinions about the museum and its role within Baltimore’s creative ecosystem. 

For me, this conversation marked a turning point. That it occurred at all was a sign that significant and necessary changes were coming to AVAM, Baltimore’s beloved, but also stagnant, institution for outsider art. Finally, the leader of this museum was looking beyond its’ walls and into surrounding communities, inviting natural audiences and partners to play a role in the future of this important cultural entity, charting a course for its evolution.

That day, when I learned that Whitfield was investing her time as a new director in dozens of in-person discussions with cultural organizations across Baltimore, I was confident that AVAM had made the right leadership decision. It was clear that its new director was not there to simply follow in the footsteps of visionary founder Rebecca Hoffberger, but to make the museum more culturally relevant on a local, regional, and global scale.

Whitfield, co-founder of the United Artists of Detroit and president of the highly praised Heidelberg Project, an outdoor arts space in Detroit, assumed her role as director in September 2022, after being recruited by AVAM. I think we can all appreciate how difficult it must be to follow in the footsteps of a founding director, especially one as charismatic and wildly creative as Rebecca Hoffberger, who co-founded the museum with her late then-husband LeRoy Hoffberger in 1995 and retired officially on April 3, 2022 after close to thirty years in this role.


Exterior of the American Visionary Art Museum, via its website

AVAM is a national museum and education center, dedicated to “intuitive, self-taught artistry and thought,” which was a radical idea in 1995. However, over the past few decades “outsider art” has evolved to include a robust global art market, broadening definitions of who and what a “visionary artist” is, and a growing awareness that racial boundaries have previously kept artists of color out of this conversation.

Since 1995, AVAM has mounted sprawling, museum-wide, thematic “mega-exhibitions” centered around universal issues: healing, sleep and dreaming, food, environmentalism, parenting; and more generallymysteries, “roundness,” and spirituality. These exhibits are always bold, colorful, and abound with copious wall text, where each artist’s story is chronicled, and sage advice for many of the world’s problems are dispensed. Feel-good, hands-on, and instructional, these exhibits have served new audiences well, but coalesced—at least in my mind—into a predictable formula, where many of the same artists are exhibited year after year, with relatively few artists representing Baltimore and surrounding areas.

Over the past decade I have visited AVAM via press tours, hired writers to write reviews, and attended their events, but as an art critic myself, I have chosen not to write about AVAM’s exhibits, in part because I have found their level of curatorial consistency and lack of risk-taking to be endemic of the way this museum operates. Rather than writing a critique, I have thought to myself, Who am I to judge? This museum does not have to be for me, and this is ok.

AVAM has remained popular with visitors, even though it charges an entrance fee unlike the BMA and Walters, which were able to create endowments to offer free admission. To me, this has always indicated that AVAM’s audience tends to be Inner Harbor-focused and tourism-related, rather than building longer term relationships with Baltimore audiences and communities. Regardless, I am sure AVAM hosts a mix of audiences and I am not suggesting that the museum is not beloved or popular within our city. In 2005 I chose to get married there because it’s so beautiful, but also fresh and not stuffy, and guests need not know anything about art history to enjoy it.

However, for me professionally, as the editor and publisher of an art magazine, I have never had any luck engaging with AVAM around any kind of shared mission or partnership. We have never co-hosted an event, never engaged in collective programming, and the museum has largely operated within a sphere of influence that does not intersect with the artists or issues BmoreArt writes about. Even our print journals were deemed not a fit for their gift shop, so I have just always felt like BmoreArt was not an ideal candidate for a strong relationship with this museum.


AVAM via Expedia website
Feel-good, hands-on, and instructional, these exhibits have served new audiences well, but coalesced, at least in my mind, into a predictable formula, where many of the same artists are exhibited year after year, with relatively few artists representing Baltimore and surrounding areas.
Cara Ober

In my line of work, it’s common to feel as if there are many missed opportunities to collaborate in a city with limited resources. I have never taken personal issue with any of this, but when Whitfield was announced as the new director at AVAM, I felt a spark of hope and excitement, that perhaps what had previously been a lost opportunity could come to fruition. Finally, AVAM might choose to embrace a Baltimore audience, as well as an obvious pool of artistic talent that it had previously overlooked. Finally, AVAM might create space within its borders to allow more contemporary and disparate voices to resonate.

My hope and vision for AVAM’s future was reinforced by conversations with Whitfield and by her presence at various art events throughout the city. She quickly became a BmoreArt subscriber, and even purchased a work of art from one of our gallery exhibitions. I started seeing her at artist lectures and opening receptions all over town, and it was obvious to me and many others that Whitfield was committed to her new role, not simply for AVAM to continue to exist in a bubble of its own making but for it to build a reciprocal relationship with Baltimore.

Sadly, AVAM announced in September 2023 that it had dismissed Whitfield after just one year, which—let’s be honest—is not enough time to accomplish anything at an institutional scale, let alone the broad systemic changes needed to take this museum to the next level. A year is enough time for discussions about change to ruffle feathers and for an institution to double down on the practices and strategies that have gotten it this far, which is what appears to have happened.

Just after she was hired, AVAM sent out a variety of press statements, including this one in March 2022, shared by the Baltimore Fishbowl: “We are so proud and delighted to have attracted as our new director such a devoted and credentialed artistic leader as Jenenne Whitfield to now lead the American Visionary Art Museum forward and build on the indelible legacy of Founding Director Rebecca Hoffberger,” said AVAM Board Chair Christopher Goelet.

At the time of her hire, Hoffberger also expressed complete confidence in Whitfield. “She cherishes and ‘gets’ all the key elements that have made AVAM such a healing and magic, beloved destination,” Hoffberger said to Ed Gunts at the Baltimore Fishbowl. “Our peers from London’s Raw Vision magazine and from several national foundations, likewise acted to champion Jenenne’s integrity and ‘perfect fit.’ Her personal passion for visionary art, metaphysics, justice and science, mirrors my own. From the moment we met, I felt a load lifted and a great relief descend. She’s our ‘one.’”

How did AVAM’s confident selection go so wrong under Whitfield’s leadership in just one year? The job of a museum director is largely like steering a giant ship. They don’t make sharp turns; there are copious barriers and structures in place that keep it afloat and heading in the right direction. It’s a difficult job, but one that AVAM’s board and founding director hand-selected Whitfield for, inviting her to give up a full life of cultural leadership in Detroit to move to Baltimore to start again.


Jenenne Whitfield. Image credit: Larry Canner Photography
As women of color, our mental and physical well-being teeters on the edge as we strive to walk in shoes filled with glass.
Jenenne Whitfield

In March, 2022, Whitfield said she was “beyond thrilled to become part of the AVAM family,” in a statement. “What excites me most is that AVAM’s philosophy and visual aesthetics are beautifully aligned with what it means to be human and what we should strive for as a human race. Rebecca has done an extraordinary job of embracing, advancing and providing a place for the intuitive creative spirit to flourish and grow. I look forward to building upon her strong foundation by increasing AVAM’s visibility, building greater alliances and taking AVAM to its next level.”

In subsequent conversations with Whitfield, her vision has stayed consistent with those expressed in public: one of building upon AVAM’s strengths but expanding diversity in audience, building new partnerships, creating updated structures for accountability, and fundraising that better supports museum staff and audiences. Given that Whitfield’s goals were not a secret, nor were they in opposition to those stated by AVAM at the time of her hire, and that she was effectively working towards those goals, it appears that one of two things happened to derail Whitfield’s leadership.

One possibility is that her stated goals—diversity, equity, and inclusionwere not actually shared by the institution at the time of her hire. Or the other possibility is that AVAM’s staff and board did not fully comprehend what these goals would actually require to accomplish and found itself unwilling to make those sacrifices and changes at this time.

Two months after Whitfield’s “departure” from AVAM, she spoke to Helen Bezuneh at The Afro Newspaper. According to Bezuneh, Whitfield still does not know what motivated her former employer to remove her as its director. 

On September 19, 2023, Whitfield says AVAM’s board informed her that they were “going in different directions.” It was a shock to her, and to the larger Baltimore arts community, where she was making inroads and building relationships—including being named to the Mayor’s Committee on Art and Culture that very week.

Goelet, chair of AVAM’s board, released a vague statement on September 21, 2023: “After an extensive review of issues essential to the strategic growth of AVAM, the Board of Directors decided to part ways with Jenenne Whitfield as director… While deeply unfortunate, the Board nonetheless appreciates Ms. Whitfield’s contributions over the past year and wishes her well in her future endeavors.”

In a Sept 21, 2023 Baltimore Fishbowl article, Hoffberger said that she planned to “return temporarily to serve as artistic director, curating exhibits and developing AVAM’s endowment.”

After all that confidence and praise for Whitfield just a year earlier, Hoffberger told the Fishbowl, “We all wish it had ended differently but every support really was given and it was just not a great fit.” And then she said something that I found even more shocking: “If I die tonight, my staff is so capable that everything that people love about AVAM would be preserved.”

First of all, we have a founding director stepping back into a previous role, which by all accounts is a step backwards, since she voluntarily chose to retire a year earlier. Second, describing them as “her staff” appears to be a boundary breach. Last, using the word “preserved,” as if AVAM had been under attack or needed to be saved is problematic. Not only does it indicate that Whitfield was not given a fair chance at unfettered leadership or enough time to accomplish shared goals, it suggests that her publicly stated aims as an agent of change were perceived as a threat.

“My role was obviously to lead the next chapter of the museum, so that’s what I did,” Whitfield said to the Afro Newspaper in November, 2023. “I did the kind of work that would really require a person to be on the ground and getting to know the community where the museum is functioning and operating. By me being new to Baltimore, I definitely had to hit the ground running. I began building relationships and looking at ways in which I could make my footprint in the museum and define what the new leadership would look like for AVAM.”

Clearly, Whitfield was selected and hired by AVAM to be a change agent. She was hand-picked for her ability to engage with audiences, build relationships with funders, and to reinvigorate an outdated model.

How much time should be given to such a leadership position, to enact any kind of meaningful change? How much time should be given to a cultural leader, nationally recruited and new to Baltimore, to understand AVAM’s place within the ecosystem, in order to assess what audiences and partners in the region desire from the institution?

Like so many of BmoreArt’s readers, I carry a great love for AVAM, but also a lot of constructive criticism that I have mostly kept to myself over the years because no one appreciates unsolicited feedback. AVAM is unequivocally a special place, but it has become clear that the institution was not prepared to work within a new leadership model and did not create the space or structures to successfully do so.

As a founder of an arts organization myself, I understand the amount of labor, love, grit, and commitment that one must hold in creating and maintaining an organization. I admire Hoffberger’s creation of an iconic, beloved, and successful cultural institutionespecially in Baltimore, which is damn near impossible.

However, the strategies necessary to build a new organization from scratch are completely different from the accountability structures required for longer term sustainability. If an institution cannot successfully function without the direct engagement of its founding director, clearly it is not yet sustainable or ready to successfully onboard a successor.

When a leader is publicly dismissed after just a year, this is not a sign that the individual has failed the institution. Rather, it is a red flag that the institution has failed the individual leader, as well as larger communities in the region who were eager to collaborate and grow together. Quite frankly, the hasty departure of Whitfield is a glaring misstep and sets a dangerous precedent for the future.

In a public release statement from October 23, Whitfield affirmed her commitment to Baltimore as a part of a “stellar arts community,” and despite her tenure at AVAM being cut short, said she has decided to continue her larger mission here.

“As we press on toward the long-overdue vision of inclusivity and a fairer society, it’s our collective responsibility to confront and challenge the fears obstructing progress,” wrote Whitfield. “What questions should we be asking? How can we unite at the table, ready to stake it all for real change to take root? As women of color, our mental and physical well-being teeters on the edge as we strive to walk in shoes filled with glass.”

“Baltimore is currently imbued with a captivating atmosphere,” she continued. “Despite the challenges and skeptics, it seems as if this city was chosen to achieve something remarkable… The moment is ripe for us to embrace genuine change with compassion, trust, and the optimism that our humanity is not irretrievably lost. What other options do we have?”


Header Image: Jenenne Whitfield, Photography by Christopher Myers for Baltimore Magazine

Related Stories
A Conversation with the Multimedia Artist and Activist on Her Dear Black Girl Project and the Power of Making Space for Community

"I was raised by a village and grew up in a multicultural environment, so community is the secret to my work's success."

The best weekly art openings, events, and calls for entry happening in Baltimore and surrounding areas.

City of Artists II at Connect + Collect; Jason Patterson and Thomas James in conversation at Banneker-Douglass Museum; opening reception for Heejo Kim & Markus Baldegger at Grimaldis Gallery; Bromo Art Walk + After Party; Andrew Thorp at Hotel Indigo, and more!

A Book for Art Nerds and Aficionados, as well as the Culturally Curious

Get the Picture: Bianca Bosker’s Journey Among Inspired Artists and Obsessive Art Fiends Who Taught Her How to See (February 2024 Viking)

Reflecting on the History of the American Labor Movement while Looking Ahead into the New Millenium 

Forged Together: Collective Action at the Baltimore Museum of Industry Reflects on the History of the American Labor Movement While Also Looking Ahead into the New Millenium    You hear, ...