Jenenne Whitfield has never been afraid to take a chance. Twenty-nine years ago she left a corporate job and joined Detroit’s Heidelberg Project, which started as an outdoor visionary art environment that transformed one block of Heidelberg Street in the eastern part of the city with sculptures and other pieces by local artists.
The Heidelberg eventually also opened a physical building to display artwork and host artists in residency, and has curated exhibits and created programming on the transformative power of art. As with any endeavor, roadblocks presented themselves over the years, including arsons that nearly destroyed it; the Heidelberg Project still stands.
Much of that is because of Whitfield. But in September she will leave her post as president and CEO of the Heidelberg Project and move to Baltimore to run the American Visionary Art Museum.
Whitfield has the chance to influence transformative change at the AVAM, which has had one executive director and chief curator in its history. Rebecca Hoffberger founded the museum with the intention of focusing on artists without formal training or visionary artists. Through the years, Hoffberger has led the museum to national acclaim and won a lot of support for its vision. In 1992, before the doors even opened, then-Sen. Barbara Mikulski led a team that passed a resolution designating the AVAM the official national museum for visionary artists.
When Hoffberger said she was planning on leaving, it was clear there were big shoes to fill.
Whitfield easily won Hoffberger over with her enthusiasm for the space.
Whitfield was recruited by a search firm to tour AVAM and spent three hours exploring the galleries on her own “and had the deepest, most sincere, gobsmacked, resonant response,” Hoffberger said.
“She knew this was her next step. I knew so, too,” Hoffberger said. “My staff adored her, and I felt a great weight lift from my shoulders strangely right before I walked in to meet her. When I discovered she had her doctorate in the study of metaphysics besides great credibility in the field of visionary art, I was over the moon.”
Whitfield said she felt an instant connection after the visit.
“I thought ‘Oh my goodness, this is like Heidelberg with walls!’” she said.
Whitfield noticed some of the same challenges that she’d faced in Detroit at AVAM.
“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.
The museum seems to have a core group of followers. During the pandemic, many museums saw their visitors plummet even after reopening with safety precautions. For the AVAM, the number of visitors remained constant. With limited capacity due to COVID protocols, it’s still seeing about 90% of the number of visitors that they had pre-pandemic, which was about 105,000 visitors annually. Whitfield sees the potential to grow that number.
In Detroit, it turned out to be a perfect match between Whitfield and the Heidelberg Project, although at first she was skeptical. Tyree Guyton founded the Heidelberg Project with his grandfather and wife at the time as a response to the blight he found in his childhood neighborhood. He and his grandfather began cleaning up lots and installing sprawling works of art. The work continued to grow until it encompassed the whole 3600 block of the street. Guyton had created a powerful environment, but he needed someone to bring structure to the project and hired Whitfield.
The two became a dynamic team to build the future of Heidelberg and also fell in love and got married. Whitfield says her husband awakened her creative side through hands-on work.
Changes and challenges excite and inspire Whitfield: “Once I learn something, I’m ready to do something else,” she said. “I don’t want to keep repeating.”
She was a financial executive for 14 years before coming to the Heidelberg Project. She expected fewer challenges at Heidelberg, but as her tenure continued, she found the opposite.
“There was like all of these wild, crazy challenges, and how do I bring this together and make this thing work and get people to appreciate it,” she said.
There were a series of arsons at the project that destroyed much of the art in 2013 and 2014. The city of Detroit tried to shut down the project several times over zoning laws for the outdoor art installation, according to the Heidelberg Project. There was also, of course, a large shift in programming because of the pandemic. The project began to host virtual events and talks like many other art institutions.
Daniel Hoops, Heidelberg honorary board member and former in-house counsel, said the Heidelberg is unique in many ways, and Whitfield has made it what it is today.
“Jenenne is very shrewd, careful and thoughtful about her actions,” he said. Hoops and Whitfield fought the city to ensure that the Heidelberg property was properly taxed as a nonprofit entity and filed a federal copyright for Heidelberg Street, Hoops said. The copyright protection helped shelter the project from demolition by the city of Detroit, he said.
Whitfield took on the challenges head on. Only in 2021 did the city award Guyton a lifetime achievement award.
Unlike traditional museums, “visionary art” spaces focus specifically on work from artists who did not receive formal fine art training.
“[Traditional museums] define what’s good based on an exterior whereas visionary artists come from a place of intuitiveness,” Whitfield said.
She believes that intuition is a big draw for visitors. She sees the American Visionary Art Museum as a leader in this space and a landmark that should be celebrated throughout Baltimore. On Key Highway, the AVAM has several exterior sculptures including a large sign on its building that reads, “O SAY CAN YOU SEE,” and a mirrored mosaic edifice. The historic Federal Hill is directly behind the museum where it hosts “Flicks on the Hill,” a summer movie series. The museum is filled with art of all mediums, but some say it can be overwhelming for visitors.
Before one can even enter the museum, the reflection of the mirrored mosaics around the exterior reflects the sun back. The wind pushes the large whirligig from Vollis Simpson; rotating and spinning as it goes. Fifi, a giant kinetic sculpture of a pink poodle, greets visitors entering the AVAM’s sculpture barn. Each piece in the collection is electric and different from the one before.
The museum hosts the annual Kinetic Sculpture Race, which features human-powered sculptures that are built specifically for the race. Whitfield got to witness the race this past spring during one of its wettest years on record. Whitfield was blown away by the support and enthusiasm from the participants and viewers.
“I wouldn’t have left Heidelberg if someone didn’t come get me,” Whitfield said.
Over 100 people applied to the director position, and Whitfield was not one. She was nominated by Amy Horst at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Wisconsin who had been watching her work and thought she’d be a good fit. She wasn’t even sure that Whitfield would be willing to leave Detroit.
“[Whitfield] centers artists and community in all that she does. Her leadership, commitment and advocacy at Heidelberg Project in Detroit is unparalleled and has brought with it community engagement and international recognition,” Horst said.
In 1999, the city of Detroit demolished parts of the Heidelberg Project, years after Whitfield joined the staff. The way Whitfield views her time at the Heidelberg, that was the end of one era. Each era is defined by a dismantling and rebuilding, she said.
Whitfield sees the job at AVAM as an opportunity to explore new ways of working.
“Young people don’t want to be told what they will like, they want to curate their own experiences,” she said.
She is also looking forward to spending time learning about next steps from the AVAM staff, many of whom have been at the museum for years.
“I want to just wrap my arms around the staff,” she said.
With the pandemic over and the return of events like “Flicks on the Hill,” Whitfield is hoping to mobilize new groups of supporters and visitors who expect more out of a museum experience.
That work is cut out for her, she said.