Veterans art museum seeks new home

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After 16 years as a rent free tenant of the Chicago Park District, the National Veterans Art Museum 1801 S. Indiana, lease is up in April. Museum staff hope to merge into a space with several veteran’s support groups, including those who use art therapy for returning vets. Wednesday, January 4, 2012. | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

The tour of duty for the National Veterans Art Museum in the South Loop is ending.

Rooted in art created by veterans processing their difficult re-entry into civilian life, the museum must be out of its Chicago Park District-owned home when its lease is up in April.

Where the museum moves next, and what form it will take, is in question.

“We wouldn’t just be a standalone museum,” said Levi Moore, executive director. “We would be part of a veteran’s cultural center in Chicago.”

Moore wants to partner with a number of social service groups in a new space in Uptown, Chinatown, River North or near the Northwest Side’s Six Corners intersection. He also hopes to launch satellite exhibits of veteran art to travel to different commercial and gallery spaces throughout the city and state. Fund-raising efforts are under way, but there’s still a chance the museum, which average 11,000 visitors a year, may not survive the move.

“It’s possible,” Moore said, calling closure “the worst-case scenario.”

The earliest incarnation of the museum was a small exhibit by a group of Vietnam veterans in a Hubbard Street art gallery in 1981.

“In five weeks we had 10,000 visitors,” said Joe Fornelli, one of the artists in the first exhibit.

The gallery show was featured on “Good Morning America” and interest in the veterans’ work – and the then-novel idea of art therapy for veterans – grew.

In 1996, the city sold the abandoned building at 1801 South Indiana for $1 to the group of veteran artists for a museum, hoping it would help anchor a South Loop revival. Called the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum, artwork initially filled all three floors of the building.

The arrangement was financially unsustainable, and in 2007 the museum sold the building back to the city and entered into a lease agreement with the park district. In 2009, the museum put most of its 2,100-piece collection into storage and moved onto the third floor. In 2010, hoping to broaden its appeal, the museum changed its name to the National Veterans Art Museum and began showing work from veterans of other wars, not just Vietnam.

Fornelli is confident the museum will survive, though he acknowledges the museum is a “quasi-miracle” for holding on for so long with no monetary support from the government or a group of wealthy benefactors.

On display currently is the long-running exhibit “The Things They Carried,” inspired by the Tim O’Brien book about soldiers in Vietnam. There is also “Radical Vulnerability” by younger veterans of more recent conflicts, which features images like a man crawling out of a pill bottle, a flak jacket with the message “The Boys Club Doesn’t Like Pink” and a medicine chest with the words “Good Morning PTSD.”

Aaron Hughes, who served in Iraq with the Illinois National Guard in 2003 and 2004 and now works as an organizer for Iraq Veterans Against the War, had a solo show in November 2006 at the museum. He now helps curate exhibits there.

Veterans, Hughes believes, are interested in not only healing through art but also “understanding what humanity is, the grossest parts of humanity and the most beautiful parts of humanity.”

“We are constantly at war today,” he said. “That’s something that I don’t think most of our society is addressing and that’s something this museum is taking head on.”

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