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may/june 2008

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By Marc Leepson
“When you walk into the converted warehouse on Chicago’s South Side, it’s like a slap in the face.” That was art critic John David Morley commenting in August of 1995 on the visceral power of the artwork displayed in the temporary home of the Vietnam Veterans Arts Group. That collection of artists and their supporters had amassed what Morley called “the most complete exhibition of Vietnam War art yet seen in America” and was showing it off in a borrowed space.

A year later, the group began a move into what was to be its permanent home, a gift from the city of Chicago. Another converted warehouse, this one is a massive, three-story, 30,000-square-foot former cocoa manufacturing plant at 1801 South Indiana Street, at the corner of 18th Street, in Chicago’s Prairie Historic District, a few miles south of the Loop.

How the one and only National Vietnam Veterans Arts Museum came to be is an intriguing story. In 1994, after reading a feature article on the Vietnam Veterans Art Group in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley and the city’s influential Cultural Affairs Commissioner Lois Weisberg made arrangements to see an extensive collection of the group’s work. Those artists had gotten together in the Windy City in 1980. The core members were Sondra Varco, an art collector and self-described suburban housewife, and a handful of accomplished artists who served in Vietnam: Joseph Fornelli, Ned Broderick, Dale Samuelson, Rick Aztlan, and Mike Petersen.

The Vietnam Veterans Art Group had first exhibited in Chicago in 1981. Within days after that show opened, veterans from around the nation contacted the group and offered their work for 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.

From 1981 until 1994 the group struggled, plagued mainly by financial and logistical problems. Funds were short and space to store the group’s art collection was difficult to find. Often the growing collection was stored in garages and basements of friends of Varco and the artists. Then, in 1994, an amazing thing happened. Mayor Daley and Commissioner Weisberg were so taken by the collective work of the Vietnam veteran artists that they made arrangements to give the group the old factory building, along with a million bucks to make it into a permanent museum.
“They asked us how much we needed to turn this place into a first-rate art museum,” Broderick told me in 1999. “Sondra came up with the figure of one million dollars and the city followed through. They wanted this museum in Chicago.”

The museum was dedicated on August 25, 1996, with a staff of eight, funded by grants and helped by a legion of volunteers. When I visited for the first time in 1999, I, too, experienced the figurative face slap as I came face to face with some of the most powerful images of the Vietnam War created by men and women who saw the war up close and personal, lived with those images, and then poured them forth in paintings, sculpture, collages, and photographs.

“It’s real, real life,” said Jerry Kykisz, the artist and Vietnam veteran who serves as the museum’s general manager. “Maybe not the pretty pictures you see at the contemporary art museums.”
My second visit to the museum early in March came on a bone-chilling, only-in-Chicago-cold late afternoon. The temperature outside was in the low twenties; the sky the color of purple slate; the wind howling. The cavernous museum was cold—it’s almost impossible to heat. But the images on display still were blazing hot.

I kept my winter coat on as Kykisz, who did a 1968-69 tour in Vietnam with the Fourth Infantry Division and who is one of two full-time, paid employees, showed me around the amazing collection. The museum houses nearly 2,000 works of art, including paintings, photography, sculpture, poetry, and music—the work of some 125 artists.

Kykisz does just about every job you can imagine at the museum, from hanging exhibits to changing light bulbs. That day he was packing up an exhibit and stopped to talk to a class of high school students. In between, Kykisz filled me in on what only can be described as a pivotal moment in the museum’s short history.

Attendance, especially after September 11, 2001, has been down significantly. Contributions also are down. Grants are increasingly hard to come by. Utility bills are sky high. The museum now faces a considerable debt and cannot hire new staff, make much-need repairs to the building, or enhance or expand its exhibits and programs.

“The situation is very dire,” Jim Holtzman, the museum’s treasurer, told The Washington Post last fall. “At this point, we’re trying to help stem the bleeding.”

In an effort to help, the city of Chicago, working closely with the museum’s board, has come up with a plan that would keep the building open at 18th and Indiana for now. The plan calls for transferring the building to the Chicago Park District, thereby wiping out the museum’s debt, eliminating any other open obligations, and providing subsistence-level funds to allow the museum an opportunity to rebuild and redevelop itself for its next phase.

“As part of this process, the museum has agreed to move to a more suitable and—more importantly—a more accessible location within the next three years,” Holtzman said. The museum also will be changing its name to reflect the fact that since 2003 it has broadened its mission to include art from veterans of the nation’s more recent wars.

“Our mission is still the same,” Kykisz said. “We’re still exhibiting artwork by soldiers on the subject of war. We’re just broadening our horizons to include the current crop of veterans. They need a place, too. We needed a place, and they do, too.”

The National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum will likely soon be known by a new name “that reflects both its Vietnam-era roots and its mission to support all war veterans,” Holtzman, said. “And, over the next couple of years it will reposition itself and raise the funds necessary to move to a new location as yet to be determined.”
If you’d like to help in this important endeavor, mail a check to The National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum, Attention: Fight for Art, 1801 S. Indiana St., Chicago, IL 60616; or use your credit or debit card by calling 312-326-0270 or going to the Museum’s web site

The “Arts in Brief” section of this column begins a new, virtual life with this issue. You will now find a link to that section on VVA’s website at: Since we have the luxury of nearly unlimited space on the web, we have expanded these items, and also will be keeping them up to date on a daily basis. Take a look and let us know what you think.



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