• Benji Sills

American Visionary Art Museum

Updated: Feb 23, 2020

“This is the best museum we’ve ever been to” Paige exclaimed multiple times as we explored Baltimore’s American Visionary Art Museum. Visionary Art aims to “transcend the physical world and portray a wider vision of awareness” according to my quick Wikipedia search - whether or not the museum achieves this is better left to wiser explorers. But I can vouch that it has some ultra weird shit.

The museum sits nestled next to the steep slopes of Federal Hill Park, hidden cosily in a cluster of other random buildings. Paige and I parked in the small lot of metered spaces and made our way over. We knew the museum was going to be unique before we’d even crossed the street - several large sculptures spill out onto the sidewalk. The most prominent is a red, white and blue weather vane stretching the full height of the multi-story building. At least it appears to be a weather vane, but you can never tell with artists.

We collected tickets in the main lobby and began to make our way up a gentle spiral. Hanging dauntingly from the ceiling was a mass of plastic trash, with sea turtles unsubtly clamoring towards it. Paige, who works in Wildlife Education, was thrilled by the conservation message and I was just happy to see artwork that I understood. The walls were plastered with pollution factoids and a few disturbing pictures, including one of a bird’s stomach bursting open and plastic trash spilling out like an overstuffed Thanksgiving turkey. A plastic straw or two I can understand, but at this point it seems like a conversation needs to be had with the bird.

This hall lead off into a separate exhibit, brimming with all sorts of inexplicable delights. I’m not confident in the theme of the room - there were unique lamps, odd paintings and several tall spooky sculptures. One menace with long outstretched arms could have been a frightening video game boss if his credibility weren’t undermined by his particularly hairy testicles. There was also a large recreation of a ship in the center of the room which appeared to be made of toothpicks, despite Paige’s protests to the contrary. One of our favorites was the addition of an entire bed, which had several large plastic insects crawling over it. “If I’d wanted to see a bed filled with bugs, we could have just hung back at your place” I commented. Paige, who has not yet emotionally recovered from a run-in with bed bugs, was less than amused.

We took a quick restroom break at this point and while I was preoccupied, Paige wandered around the lower level near the restrooms, taking ample photographs of a farting exhibit. By the time I came out, I found her over by a woman on a stationary bicycle, sculpted from coffee cans. We both agreed that if Peloton decided to go with a slogan like “You CAN do it!” then the perfect mascot was already waiting.

We wanted to check out some of the upstairs exhibits as well, so we wound our way back up the spiral staircase. The second floor was home to several extravagant exhibits, including “The Secret Life of Earth: Alive! Awake! (and Possibly Really Angry!)”, an opus on climate change. It included a giant green gorilla and a globe boiling red hot in the oven. There was also a room where multiple screens hung like cobwebs at drastic angles, each playing a nature documentary. We lay down on the floor and basked for a while, feeling like we’d climbed inside Netflix. Another exhibit on the second floor featured a number of knit pictures, each depicting a sad story. We found the tale hard to digest however as we were distracted by the entire farmhouse built in the center of the room and the stuffed cow grazing next to it.

On our way to the third and final floor we found what is easily our favorite painting in the museum. It depicts a wise vulture surrounded by astrological signs, wearing an expression that suggests he’s about to scam you into a ten dollar palm reading at the mall. The final floor itself was mostly empty - it’s usually where you’d find the museum’s restaurant, but it was closed the day we visited. There was a large cabinet of PEZ dispensers however. If you’ve read about our time at the PaperMoon Diner, you may be wondering if Baltimore has become the obligatory dump for surplus PEZ (read more about that confusing restaurant here).

The Visionary Art Museum is actually spread across several different buildings, so we decided to head to the warehouse space next, but of course Paige wouldn’t let us leave the main gallery without an obligatory visit to the museum gift shop. Art museum gift shops are always hilarious - they’ll sell pretty much anything, but this store truly set a new standard. There were stress ball Donald Trumps that, when squeezed, appeared to do a rubbery poo. There were mugs sprinkled in rainbows that proclaimed “Baltimore: there’s more than murder here!” There were ouija boards and PEZ dispensers. There was an entire chest of drawers brimming with the sort of garbage prizes you’d find at Dave and Busters: rubber frogs and stickers and an especially scammy bin selling printed thumbnails from old movies, which could not have been priced low enough. “Glad we had time to stop at Dollar Tree” I mused on the way out.

After finally pulling Paige away from the slightly mournful collection of Clinton 2016 bobbleheads, we crossed to the next building: the warehouse. Supposedly this was the next museum space, although by all appearances it was still waiting for an installation to load in. There was a large empty dance floor lit by an overhead grid of purple filters and a single, lonely disco ball. It felt like we’d showed up to prom on the wrong day. The only whiff of artwork in the cavernous space was a series of Earth murals on the ceiling. They were covered in writing as well, but 30 feet up they were impossible to read. There was also a large paper mâché elephant in a corner, which I’m only now realizing must have been a literal elephant in the room and been intended as a statement of some sort. Whatever was being conveyed, we missed it completely and instead tried to do as many pirouettes as possible on the dance floor.

Outside of the warehouse was a small sculpture garden - there’s a couple of displays but the centerpiece is clearly a five story found metal sculpture of a bird. It’s spine and long spindly neck appear to be crafted into a giant violin and the head pecks curiously at a large nest, lofted on the side of another building. We spent minimal time appreciating the art and instead focused on trying to take a cute jumping picture. After Paige plummeted several times, we called it quits and went inside the third exhibit space. This space turned out to be our favorite, by far.

Inside this cavernous space, we immediately noticed one of the walls was covered by glass. Behind the panels were dozens of automata, a type of mechanical sculpture that allows you to interact with it. Underneath each sculpture was a tempting red button that would activate the animatronics and allow the sculpture to move. The automata themselves varied from frightening to broken. We played with them for ages - they included a man dressed as a horse that would shuffle awkwardly when activated, figurines desperately pedaling a bucking airship and a disturbing diorama of a man smacking a dying horse with a pole. After a few cheerful wallops on the horse, we made our way off into the rest of the exhibit.

The space is wide and lofty, allowing for hulking sculptures to comfortably rest. The artwork in here is huge and especially random. The collection includes a large crocodile vehicle that looks like it may have been the car for a Disney ride, as well as two ten foot tall fluffy pink poodles with a full hot air balloon floating casually above them (pictured at the top of the page). There was also a two story front facade of a brownstone recreated in the room. Sure, why not?

We went up to the second floor, which was essentially a wrap around balcony that allowed clear aerial views of the same artwork, and then we tried the third floor as well. Initially unsure if we were allowed there, we tentatively wandered into a large empty space with nothing but a single rack of stacked chairs and a blank projector. It looked like the sort of inactive room that might sometimes be used for seminars, but honestly at this point maybe it was an installation. Who knows?

The best part of the third floor is the door that opens out onto the balcony. What had previously looked like a bird’s nest was revealed to conceal a balcony with some lovely views of the museum buildings and surrounding harbor. From this vantage point you get a sense of the museum’s scale - three entire buildings brimming with an array of odd and engaging art. Visionaries and plebeians alike, make sure you clear the day.

The museum is located at 800 Key Highway in Baltimore, Maryland. There is a metered lot out from with a decent amount of available parking. The meters accept card so no need to empty your piggy bank.

The museum’s admission is $15.95 for adult tickets.

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