Nothing about 1801 S. Indiana Avenue looks very “veteran” to me (to stereotype a demographic which spans generations, race, religion and gender, a demographic which I am a part of) except for maybe the potholes in the streets. Everything is clean, sharp, red brick, expensive coffee. Wealthy. But this neighborhood isn’t what it used to be back in 1996 when the location was sold to the Vietnam Veterans Art Group who were looking for a home to store the growing library of work boiling out of the veterans of their generation, the Vietnam veterans. The cost? One dollar.
The deal was made by the cunning Mayor Daley under the presumption that he at one time actually wanted Chicago to be the home of the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum. In May of 2009 the group had sold the building back to the City of Chicago Parks District Central Region for one dollar. I needed to know why.
Until that time the NVVAM had the run of the entire building showing work on the first two floors and using the third for studio space and storage. In 2009 the Parks District issued the museum a license to remain in operation – on the third floor. One step inside of the building shows that the building is clearly no longer much of a museum at all.
First you see a zoo, children running wild in a plastic, child-safe environment. Then you hear them…
Above your head are the dog tags of the 58,209 men who died of a bad case of the Vietnam War clinking together like so many wind chimes. One visitor was quoting as saying “it sounds like Angels.” I think those are the appropriate words. The piece is called “Above and Beyond.”
You get into an elevator basked in some sickly green gas station parking lot light and you slowly ratchet up to the third floor. The door opens…
It has been called battle fatigue, shell shock, now P.T.S.D. (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Whatever you choose to call it, it has a flavor of it’s own and when you stand there you get the full taste of it.
The scope of this collection begins to settle in. Over 255 artists have work here. The subject is certainly War, but which? On your right is the green and black and white of Vietnam and on your left is the sandy brown, light blue of the sky, and all the photographs are digital.
I’ve come here to talk to the Executive Director, Levi Moore, about what will happen to the museum when their “license” from the Parks District is up this April. I am led to the offices in back by Joe (who I later discover is a founder of this museum) and introduced to Levi.
To start things off I say: “It must be hard to walk through the first floor every day” to which he responded “Some days it is very hard” with a long look on his face.
So how bad is it? How close are we to losing this place?
Levi says that when the license is out there is a very real possibility that the work, the whole collection, could go into storage… and it may never come back out. He has seen it happen before with the Peace Museum which closed it’s doors for similar reasons under the belief that the work would be briefly stored while a new location was found. The work now sits in a storage locker, which is infinitely better than the damp basement it had been stored in last. But surely this museum couldn’t come to that?
Levi explained that the NVAM could renew its license with the Parks District but that it must move for several reasons.
Firstly there are the many costs of building operation: upkeep, insurance, maintenance (elevators, leaky roofs, rusty pipes, it gets expensive over the years). The second issue is the neighborhood. The building had been sold when the neighborhood was undeveloped and Daley wanted it to be an extension of the Museum District, a smaller Arts District. But that never came to be. The area became residential mostly which means that it is short in: parking, easy transportation, and food. In short the area is not ideal for museum goers who want to make a whole easy package out of a trip to the Loop.
When asked why this collection belongs in Chicago, why this city should be proud to be the home of this national museum, he said: “There are three things: One- This museum was founded here and it has a history here. Two- As Joe says ‘this museum was ground zero for using art therapy to help veterans deal with P.T.S.D. And three- We provide a naked view of the impact of War. “
He finished by saying: “It is time to step up now.”
The museum has taken on a new direction since 2010 in opening its doors to the G.W.o.T. generation. Levi thinks this is the most crucial thing. Currently hosting the show “Intrusive Thoughts”, all art from the new generation, the museum is gearing up for the period that they know will be the large influx of new work: three to five years after everyone has come home and had time to think about what they’ve done. That is when you can expect to see it, Levi says.
In accepting this new generation there is an implicit desire to “pass the torch” from one generation, weary of its burden, to another generation, slightly more fresh and optimistic. A new generation more ready to deal with the modern world, though the NVAM is already taking huge measures to modernize their online gallery.
Chicago, it is time to step up now. If you want to save the National Veterans Art Museum, and if you want that museum to be here, in our city, then donate money or time to the museum. They have a goal of three million-dollars which is a sum that the work of two generations of veterans deserves and the future of our society needs. Please spread the word and encourage your friends and family to visit the museum. It may not always be there. It may, like many veterans, perish for lack of help.