October 1999/November 1999
Chicago's National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum
By Marc Leepson
It seems as though every big city in the country has an area close to
downtown that recently has emerged from depressed squalor and blossomed
into a vibrant, livable neighborhood. These rejuvenated areas typically
are filled with meticulously restored buildings that house cutting-edge
businesses, cool restaurants, spacious apartments, and happening art galleries.
In Chicago that area is the Prairie Avenue Historic District a mile or
so south of the Loop.
It's a once-elegant part of town that started out as a sandy strip of
prairie land bordering Lake Michigan. In the mid-19th century the neighborhood
became one of Chicago's most prosperous. Some of the city's richest and
most famous entrepreneurs--people like the Pullmans, the Armours, and the
Fields--built lavish homes in the district.
Today, the reborn Prairie Avenue Historic District includes the restored
Second Presbyterian Church, a national landmark famous for its Tiffany
and Burne-Jones stained glass. The area also is home to Chicago's oldest
building, the Clarke House, a Chicago landmark built in 1836 that's on
the National Register of Historic Places, and the equally elegant and historic
Victorian-era Glessner mansion, built in 1887.
A stone's throw from those architectural treasures is a large, three-story,
30,000-square-foot former cocoa powder manufacturing plant and warehouse
at 1801 South Indiana Street, at the corner of South Indiana and 18th Street.
The cocoa manufacturer went out of business about twenty-five years ago.
The building stood vacant for two decades. Then something momentous happened.
The City of Chicago decided to bankroll the building's metamorphosis into
the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum.
In 1994, after reading a feature article in the Chicago Tribune,
Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and the city's Cultural Affairs Commissioner
Lois Weisberg made arrangements to see an extensive collection of artwork
produced and collected by a group of Chicago Vietnam veteran artists calling
itself the Vietnam Veterans Arts Group. The group had gotten together in
the Windy City in 1980. Its core members were Sondra Varco, a self-described
suburban housewife, and several accomplished artists who served in Vietnam:
Joseph Fornelli, Ned Broderick, Dale Samuelson, and Mike Petersen.
The Vietnam Veterans Art Group put on its first show in Chicago in
1981. Within days after it opened, veterans began contacting the group
and offering their work to its collection. That work formed the basis for
a traveling show called "Reflexes and Reflections'' that drew critical
and popular raves when it was exhibited in large museums and art galleries
on college campuses and in New York City, Milwaukee, Austin, and Columbia,
From 1981 until 1994 the group often struggled, plagued mainly by financial
and logistical problems. Funds were short and space to store the group's
collection of art was difficult to find. Often the growing collection was
stored in garages and basements of friends of the artists. Then, in 1994,
the group was given free space in a Chicago building--the site that Daley
and Weisberg visited.
"The minute I saw the collection, I was overwhelmingly impressed,''
Weisberg said. She and the mayor were so taken by the work that they made
the group an offer that no sane person could refuse: they would give the
artists the old cocoa plant, free of charge, along with $1 million to transform
it into a national museum of art by Vietnam veterans.
"They asked us how much we needed to turn this place into a first-rate
art museum,'' Broderick told us in a recent interview. "Sondra came up
with the figure of one million dollars and the city followed through. They
wanted this museum in Chicago.''
Broderick, who is now the president of the National Vietnam Veterans
Art Museum, spent a day giving VVA an in-depth guided tour of the spacious
three-story museum, which was dedicated on August 25, 1996, and includes
a gift shop, a restaurant, and a lecture area. The non-profit, tax-exempt
museum has a staff of eight, and survives with the help of grants and the
work of a legion of volunteers. "We have a great corps of volunteers, many
of whom are Vietnam vets,'' Broderick said. "One even has the museum logo
tattooed on his arm.''
A group of veterans provided countless hours of physical labor during
the museum's renovation. "Some painters--Vietnam veterans--who worked all
day came here at night and painted the interior space and wouldn't take
any money,'' Broderick told us. "We paid them with pizza.''
The museum exhibits some six hundred works by more than one hundred
artists who work in different media, including photography and various
types of sculpture. All served in the Vietnam War. "You have to have a
DD214 that shows you served in the military during the Vietnam War,'' Broderick
said of one of the criteria the museum uses to decide the works it exhibits.
The collection also includes an NVA soldier's drawing taken from his pack
and the work of Cao Ninh, a former ARVN soldier.
A selection of Broderick's oil paintings is in the permanent collection.
Broderick joined the Marines when he was seventeen years old and arrived
in Vietnam early in 1966. He went on to take part in twenty-two operations
with the Fourth Marines in the next nineteen months in Quang Tri Province.
"We were basically at the end of the supply line,'' Broderick told a group
of high school seniors the day we toured the museum. "We operated mostly
on beans, bayonets, and bullets.''
Broderick says that his difficult Vietnam tour had at least one positive
element: it gave him the inspiration to become an artist. "In Vietnam how
I looked at life changed a great deal,'' he said. In the midst of one particularly
vicious battle, Broderick said, "I told myself, ‘If I live through this,
I am going to do just what I feel is right.' ''
What felt right was painting. After he left the Marine Corps, Broderick
enrolled in art school in Chicago on the GI Bill. Within a few years he
was turning out critically acclaimed work.
The Vietnam War is only one subject Broderick deals with on his prolific
canvases, but his wartime experiences color much of what he does artistically.
"My paintings,'' he says, "are on the subject of people in trouble. I never
run out of things to paint.'' Broderick had a difficult time adjusting
to life after coming home, but his art work, he said, did very little in
the way of helping him deal with that psychic pain. "The art is merely
a reflection of what happened,'' he said. "It doesn't make the feelings
go away. Time, more than anything, helps in that regard.''
Broderick's work makes up a fraction of the museum's collection. The
hundreds of other works on display offer a wide variety of artistic interpretations
of veterans' experiences in Vietnam, their feelings about the people of
Vietnam (including the enemy), and about their country.
Much of the work is blunt in its depiction of the worst that war has
to offer. "The cumulative impact of the pictures can be described as literally
terrific,'' art critic John David Morley wrote in The New York Times.
"A sense of stunned disbelief hangs in the rooms of the converted warehouse.''
Morley said that for "some of the artists, still in their teens when
they went to Vietnam, death and destruction was their introduction to adulthood.
It is this sudden transition, from peace to war, from youth to maturity,
from life to death, that gives their art its extraordinary directness.''
The collection includes Fornelli's often startling sculptures such as
"Dressed to Kill,'' a bust adorned with a halo of 50-caliber shell casings.
There also is an extensive collection of evocative war-time photography
by Dick Durrance, Doug Clifford, James McJunkin, Art Dockter, and Jerry
Kykisz, among others, and illuminating post-war paintings by several African-American
artists including Ulysses Marshall, William Myles, Farris Parker, and Cleveland
Michael Aschenbrenner's stunning collage called "Damaged Bones, Series
2'' is made up of different representations of broken, bandaged, and splinted
leg bones. Both of Aschenbrenner's legs were broken during the Tet Offensive
near Laos. William Dugan, who worked in graves registration in Vietnam,
puts together pieces of sculpture that include real bones.
Surrounding the works of art is an extensive collection of Vietnam War
military equipment, all of it on loan from Broderick's personal collection
of American, ARVN, NVA, and Viet Cong weapons and war materiel. Why the
large assortment of weapons, backpacks, helmets and uniforms? "It's like
the alpha and the omega,'' Broderick explained. "It's where the art came
The museum also has a sound track: the slide projection room has a continuous
audiotape Broderick put together filled with Vietnam-era popular songs,
news snippets, and even some NVA and VC songs.
Joe Fornelli, a former door gunner and Huey helicopter crew chief who
today heads the museum's board of directors, in a 1996 Chicago Sun-Times
interview, said the museum "is a dream I was even afraid to dream about.
It is truly beyond words.
"If there was a little sign at the entrance of an office building that
said, ‘25 percent of the people who enter this building today will come
out dead, maimed or wounded,' nobody would go into that building. But we
did it every day [in Vietnam]. That reality is difficult to understand,
but it really comes across in the art.''
E-mail us at TheVeteran@vva.org