Baltimore has long been celebrated for its thriving arts scene, but far less commonly honored are those behind the scenes: the directors, curators and coordinators responsible for bringing the art to life. Though not sharing as directly in the glamour and glory of shows as artists or performers, their impact is arguably more immediate in the shaping of Baltimore’s artistic landscape.
Three such tastemakers are Johanna Gruenhut, Rebecca Alban Hoffberger and Amanda Kodeck, Jewish women who bring both considerable talent and a unique perspective to three of the city’s major arts organizations.
“I always come from a place of being a Jewish woman,” said Gruenhut, artistic associate at the Everyman Theatre. “In ‘The Roommate’ by Jen Silverman, which I will be directing in the fall, one of the characters goes through a period of mourning and rebirth. The text says she slept for a week, and I remember immediately thinking of shiva. I’ve had that experience — both cocooning yourself and waking up from that moment of quietude.”
Identity plays a large part in shaping all of Gruenhut’s work at Everyman, including her status as a woman in the arts. She currently helms the theater’s inaugural salon series, ‘Women’s Voices in American Theatre,’ which focuses on female playwrights and female directors.
“I was raised in a modern Orthodox home, and I went to Jewish school, but I’m also a wife and a mother of three,” she said. “All the little bits that make up your life shape the way you experience art.”
A former off-Broadway actress, Gruenhut moved to Baltimore seven years ago and hopes to infuse the city with her distinct viewpoint.
“It’s really nice to have an artistic home at Everyman,” she said. “It’s important to me to make art in the place where I live because I want the cultural landscape of my city to resonate with my life.”
Art historian Amanda Kodeck too plays a considerable part in shaping the arts in Baltimore. As the Ruth R. Marder director of education and public programs at the Walters Art Museum, Kodeck is responsible for bringing art to the community in a meaningful way.
“We want to change the way that people feel they can use the museum,” she said. “We want it to be seen as somewhere that members of the community can not only learn about history but can hang out, have fun and be creative.”
For Kodeck, who started at the Walters as an intern during graduate school, that means working with a talented team of teachers to come up with the best ways to communicate the museum’s message.
“When I first started, the most rewarding part of my job was seeing the children’s faces light up when they truly understood a concept or connected with the art. And while fostering that connection is still something that really resonates with me, I now consider building a team of educators who are so smart and so passionate as the greatest reward.”
That connection to people is equally important to Rebecca Alban Hoffberger, the founder and director of the American Visionary Art Museum.
“I have to say that I’m not interested in the arts, per se, at all,” Hoffberger said. “Instead, I’m interested in fresh thoughts. My passion is for people who evolve, who are understanding of and better our life with creative acts of social justice, with scientific and medical breakthroughs and works of art that deepen our understanding of our humanity.”
Her eye for such innovations often draws upon interpretations of traditional teachings, including her own faith and culture.
“I always joke that in every exhibition that I’ve curated I do ‘Torah by stealth,” she said. “I’ve done exhibitions that are directly inspired by teachings like the Pirkei Avot, but I also did a show with Archbishop [Desmond] Tutu and Rosie O’Donnell called ‘Race, Class & Gender: Three things that contribute zero to character, because being a schmuck is an equal opportunity for everyone!’”
Hoffberger says that this combination of “humor and wisdom” is essential in bringing the beauty of different traditions to the forefront.
“There are so many perspectives worthy of being shared,” she said. “We have to do what we can to bring them out.”