What is Visionary Art?

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"Where Am I? Who Am I? Why Am I?" by William Kurelek

Like love, you know it when you see it. But here's the longer definition, straight out of our Mission Statement:

"Visionary art as defined for the purposes of the American Visionary Art Museum refers to art produced by self-taught individuals, usually without formal training, whose works arise from an innate personal vision that revels foremost in the creative act itself."

In short, visionary art begins by listening to the inner voices of the soul, and often may not even be thought of as 'art' by its creator.

What is Art?

The ancients – the Greeks, Egyptians, Hopis, and the New Guinea tribesmen – were among earth’s most prolific art-making peoples. Yet, none had any word for “art” in their respective languages. Rather, they each had a word that meant “well made” or “beautifully performed.” Our American Visionary Art Museum believes that this view of what art really means is as perfect an understanding of art as ever was. It speaks to an art incumbent upon all its citizens, pervasive throughout all the arts of our daily life. Its emphasis is on process and consciousness, not mere artifact.

Martin Luther King, Jr. expressed his profound respect for the true artistry each member of a society can uniquely evidence to bless our communities, “If a man is called to be a streetsweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the Hosts of Heaven and earth would pause to say: Here lived a great streetsweeper who did his job well.

How is visionary art different from folk art?

The German origin of the word "folk," or volk, suggests "of the people." The term "folk art" can be applied in the broadest sense: it's art of or by the people. At AVAM, we don't define visionary art as "folk art," or even "contemporary folk art," principally because organizations like the National Endowment for the Arts rightfully define folk art as art coming out of a specifically identifiable tradition. Folk art is "learned at the knee" and passed from generation to generation, or through established cultural community traditions, like Hopi Native Americans making Kachina dolls, sailors making macramé, and the Amish making hex signs. The "contemporary folk art" label isn't appropriate for AVAM either, since we like to show works created by self-taught artists who may have lived hundreds of years ago, alongside work that may have been created last year. The exhibition themes we choose to explore are, thus, innately timeless -with the power to inspire human beings in highly personal acts of creation. Unlike folk art, visionary art is entirely spontaneous and individualized.

So when is visionary art clearly not folk art?

The essential difference between the two, though both may at times use similar materials and methods, is that visionary artists don't listen to anyone else's traditions. They invent their own. They hear their own inner voice so resoundingly that they may not even think of what they do as 'art.' Dubuffet's beloved Art Brut Collections, formed exclusively from the "raw art" creations of non-artists, such as street people, hermits, factory workers, housewives and psychic mediums, motivated him to say: "Art is at its best when it forgets its very name." It is this listening to one's inner voice with such focused attention that contributes to the unusually large number of visionary artworks, many of which took decades to create. Yet there are still common threads. The most common theme of visionary artists worldwide is the backyard recreation of the Garden of Eden and other utopian visions – quite literally building heaven on earth.

Can't trained artists also hear their own voices?

Absolutely. All of us at AVAM enjoy and respect the learning that comes from academic study or through apprenticeship to a trained artist. We dedicate AVAM exclusively, however, as a place devoted to the other path of mastery – the intuitive path of learning to listen to the small, soft voice within. We believe there is great power in not knowing what will or won't work, and we adhere to the importance of not being immersed in rule-based systems which can cloud one's vision. As in science, ignorance often gives birth to genuinely new inventions and a re-examination of what has already been dismissed. Jonathan Swift defined this kind of vision so perfectly: "Vision is the art of seeing things invisible." Discovering possibilities that others do not see is what visionaries do best.

How do you find all these works you exhibit? Who gets to pick?

We are committed to unveiling a great range of the best of visionary art by exploring one unifying theme at a time. We seek out individual guest curators who know, respect, and adore visionary art and who are likely to have their own special relationship with a particular exhibition theme. We like them to lead a full life quite apart from their curatorial abilities, so that their personal richness and other interests can influence their show. Do you have a submission? Click here for our submission guidelines. Check out "AVAM's Sure-Fire Recipe for Enchantment" below - a starting point for creating our one-of-a-kind exhibitions.

"AVAM's Sure-Fire Recipe for Enchantment"

  1. Take one grand spirited theme that has inspired or bedeviled humankind from the get-go.
  2. Add the works of the world's best self-taught artists – known and first-timers – that have wrestled in their lives and art with some key aspect of that theme.
  3. Spice the exhibition text with insightful quotes, lyrics, factoids, and humor on diverse aspects of that same exhibition theme – interweaving timeless, global wisdoms.
  4. Integrate key historic, scientific, and social justice underpinnings of each theme via the well-researched exhibition text, and dynamic creative partnerships.
  5. Call up anyone (appropriate to theme) you/your staff have long admired and invite them to come take part in some way that is a new delight to them, too. (We did this successfully with Nobel winner Peter Agre, M.D., Archbishop Desmund Tutu, Andrew Newberg, M.D., Arianna Huffington, Matt Groening, Julia Butterfly Hill, Julian Bond, PostSecret's Frank Warren, Patch Adams, M.D., and more!)
  6. Top with community based programming that makes a difference, i.e. theme-related film series, festivals, conferences, plus fab ops for grassroots communal play. Never bore – enchant!
  7. Stay true at all times to AVAM's Seven Founding Education Goals, Definition of Art, Definition of Visionary, and Founding Mission Statement.


Is there a permanent collection?

Yes, we now have over 4,000 pieces in our collection! You can learn more about our permanent collection here. We intend to rotate exhibition of the best works in our Permanent Collection Gallery, located on Level 1 of our Main Building, opposite AVAM's Museum Shop, as well as throughout our other two buildings and garden space. Approximately 50 works will be on view at any one time in the Permanent Collection Gallery. This space also permits us to showcase some amazing works made available to AVAM on long-term loan. With the Permanent Collection Gallery, the Third Floor Gallery, Tall Sculpture Barn, and the 45,000 sq. foot Jim Rouse Visionary Center, AVAM can stay open during the five-week change periods between each of our annual thematic exhibitions (with a reduced admission fee of $8). Our Museum Shop, Sideshow, stays open to serve you, too. AVAM is dedicated to continuing production of all new mega-exhibitions. They provide an ideal forum for public exploration of all the grand themes that have always inspired human beings into acts of fresh, new creation. This system also lets us borrow the best art works to share with the public, and return them safely to be appreciated elsewhere. In this way, we can exhibit fabulous art, without the great expense of AVAM purchasing works that would only have to be eventually confined to dark, climatized storage while we mount new shows.