Just over a year after Jenenne Whitfield became the official director of the American Visionary Art Museum, the institution announced Thursday that it has parted ways with her, effectively immediately.

Whitfield started in the role in September 2022, replacing Rebecca Hoffberger, AVAM’s founder and its only other director since opening in 1995. A press release from the museum stated that Hoffberger “has agreed to return to AVAM in this period as Artistic Director to assist with curation and also support the further development of AVAM’s endowment” while a search committee is assembled to find the next leader.

The announcement comes just two days after Whitfield was named a member of Mayor Brandon Scott’s Arts & Culture Advisory Committee, made up of creatives “who will be instrumental in supporting our local artists and organizations, and the coordination of cultural events that showcase our city’s talent and heritage.”

An exact reason was not given for Whitfield’s departure. In a statement provided by AVAM, Board of Directors Chair Christopher Goelet said: “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.”

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In an interview with The Baltimore Banner, Gregory Tucker, AVAM’s strategic communications adviser, credited the change to “the board exercising its responsibility, oversight and fiduciary responsibility for AVAM. In discussions and in planning, they decided to part ways to ensure that the vision and the mission of AVAM continues. You might attribute that to honest disagreements.”

Prior to working in Baltimore, Whitfield was the decadeslong president and CEO of Detroit’s Heidelberg Project, an outdoor visionary art environment. Whitfield told The Banner in July of last year that she had been recruited for the AVAM position.

“I wouldn’t have left Heidelberg if someone didn’t come get me,” she said.

Before her time at Heidelberg, Whitfield was a financial executive for 14 years. In the same interview with The Banner, she said while she expected fewer challenges when working in the arts field, she took pride in facing them head on, which led to her accepting the AVAM position. “I really want to help Baltimore, as well as other cities recognize the treasure that AVAM really is because I don’t feel enough people really recognize just how powerful that place really is,” she said.

Whitfield could not be reached for comment Thursday.

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Hoffberger came up with the idea for AVAM in 1984. She envisioned it as a museum that would emphasize “intuitive creative invention and grassroots genius,” according to its website. The museum developed a significantly strong following, and even during the pandemic, its number of visitors remained constant while many other museums saw their attendees significantly decrease.

Tucker doesn’t believe there will be an issue finding the next director. “AVAM has an international reputation,” he said. “It is consistently cited as a top tourist attraction in Baltimore and a museum that has a really strong identity.”

In the meantime, Director of Finance and Operations Donna Katrinic and Director of Development and Marketing Valerie Williams will be responsible for AVAM’s day-to-day operations. Neither were made available for comment.

When asked about Whitfield’s departure, Hoffberger, who is coming out of retirement to temporarily fill the artistic director role, said: “All I can say is that we sincerely wish for Jenenne the very best.”

This article has been updated to reflect the year Rebecca Hoffberger came up with the idea for the American Visionary Art Museum.

taji.burris@thebaltimorebanner.com

Taji Burris has covered the Baltimore music scene since 2015 for outlets such as The Working Title and The 4th Quarter, and now at the Baltimore Banner.

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