Imagine a collection of military dog tags, one for each member of the military who died in the Vietnam War, hanging above you in a 10 x 40 foot space. That’s just what visitors experience as they enter the National Veterans Art Museum in Chicago, which opened in 1996.
The dog tags — more than 58,000 of them — are part of a permanent installation titled the “Above & Beyond Memorial.” The exhibit has been in place since Memorial Day 2001, so today marks its tenth year honoring veterans of the Vietnam War.
The museum evolved from works created by artists of the Vietnam Veterans Art Group, established in Chicago in 1981, and was originally named the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum. A January 2010 name change signaled the museum’s intent to broaden the collection to feature art by veterans of other combat.
Today the museum opens an exhibit titled “Charlie Shobe Memorial Show.” Shobe, who died on Jan 16, was a lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps. He served in the Vietnam War in 1967 and 1968. Shobe, both artist and musician, was a founding member of the Vietnam veterans artist group whose works toured the U.S. and led to the museum’s creation.
Also on exhibit is “Prayer Boots,” an interactive piece by Jon Turner that “asks patrons to reflect on their relationship to war and to offer their meditations.” Turner is a three-tour Marine Corps veteran whose work is also featured in the museum’s “Intrusive Thoughts” exhibit, which “explores the aftermath of military service and combat in the 21st century.” Contributing artists are “veterans of Iraq, Afghanistan and/or the Global War on Terror.”
Current exhibits at the National Veterans Art Museum also include “Angels in the Desert” (a sculpture by Marcus Eriksen, the first veteran of a Persian Gulf War to exhibit at the museum), “The Things They Carried” (inspired by Tim O’Brien’s book by the same name) and “Conflict Zone: A Reflective Look at War” (housed at Expo 72 in the Chicago Cultural Center).
The National Veterans Art Museum works to “inspire greater understanding of the real impact of war with a focus on Vietnam.” They collect, preserve and exhibit “art inspired by combat and created by veterans” — and they’re seeking a new home to increase their capacity to store and exhibit veteran art. Executive Director Levi Moore was kind enough to give me a call on this, their busiest weeked of the year, to share a bit more about the museum’s plans.
Their current site, a three-story building located in a largely residential district, was donated to the museum many years ago by Mayor Richard M. Daley (who was later honored with the first dog tag from the “Above & Beyond” exhibit). It was sold “back to Chicago parks” in 2008, which helped the museum pay off its debt and begin the journey to a new space.
Today it’s a tenant occupying just the single floor of the building that’s being repurposed as a community center — something Moore says is dearly needed with so many young families moving into the neighborhood. He mused, as we spoke, about both the day’s drenching rain and the many “baby carriages” he squeezes past on the stairs each day.
Moore says the museum is looking for a centrally located space in Chicago, with easy access to public transportation and high appeal for tourists. Ample parking, a bear in any big city, is on the wish list too. Moore says they’re open to building a new site, moving to an “underperforming building” or relocating to an existing space — and they’re seeking donations, big and small.
Having more room, notes Moore, will increase their ability to offer education and outreach programs. In the meantime, they’ve got exhibits to manage and stories to collect from or about each of the artists with works in the museum’s collection. “Stories from veterans about why they created the art is as telling as the artwork itself,” reflects Moore. He hopes they’ll have a new home come April 2012.
I’m eager to see the museum, and now I’ll have an excuse to fly through Chicago when I visit Lizabeth at college in NYC. For folks who can’t get there, Moore says they’re planning a larger virtual presence thanks to a grant that’ll fund photographing museum works and combining them with other elements to create a virtual museum anyone can experience online.
Closer to home, Arizona veterans enjoy diverse art classes through an organization called the “American Healing Arts Foundation.” Classes, including supplies, are free — and the organization also provides art therapy. It’s all part of “reuniting veterans with their peers…in a peaceful environment” — and giving them opportunities to “discover their talents and achieve an art career.”
Art heals some wounds, but not all. So remember too that veterans and their families need our support through programs that provide good medical and mental health care, housing assistance, job training, educational opportunities and family supports.
Offer the paintbrush and the pen. But don’t stop there. Raise your voice, and offer your hands, to support public policies that honor and assist our veterans. And thank them, in your heart and out loud, for each and every day you enjoy our many freedoms.
Coming up: More stories of art that heals, Film takes flight
Photos courtesy of the National Veterans Art Museum (Artwork details and artist statements are available on their website).
Update: Click here for a compelling read from Reuters, which explores the museum’s offerings and impact.