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Peace Plan 

Can the city save the Vietnam Veterans Art Museum?

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The city of Chicago submitted a peace plan this week to the feuding founders of the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum, where artists have become so concerned about strife at the top that they've threatened to remove their works.

City Hall has a stake in the veterans' museum; in 1996 it contributed a building, at 18th and Indiana, and a million-dollar grant to put the place on its feet. Monday night, in a meeting at the Cultural Center, the city proposed that Wendy Willrich, assistant to the commissioner of cultural affairs, take over as acting executive director, and that the three founders fill new jobs beneath her.

Cofounder Sondra Varco had been the executive director. But by late summer she was no longer seen around the museum, apparently having lost the battle to her two partners. Varco spoke of "growing pains" and "differences of philosophy"; Ned Broderick, another founder and the museum's president, said the institution was being "restructured"; and vice president Joe Fornelli, the third founder, said Varco was "sort of writing her own role."

The founders had trouble putting their finger on what had gone wrong, but something had. And as Varco lost influence, more than half the artists exhibited by the museum were so troubled that they retained her son Vincent as their attorney and authorized him to remove their works from the collection until "the previous leadership is once more in charge of the museum." Many wrote cultural affairs commissioner Lois Weisberg with their concerns. They made it clear that their first loyalty was to Varco and that they believed Broderick, Fornelli, board chairman Richard Hackett, and other board members had pushed her out. While some of the artists acknowledged that Varco was no more qualified to run a museum than anyone else, they told Weisberg they trusted Varco and stood behind her.

One of the artists, Neal Pollack, wrote Weisberg last summer that Varco "gave birth, nurtured, and molded the organization that is now on the brink of dissolution." He called her the museum's "curator, first sergeant, fund-raiser [and] den mother." In a phone conversation from his Colorado home, he added, "There are a couple of us that offered to burn our stuff instead of not having Sondra return to the thing. I don't care if the museum burns to the ground. I'd rather see it not exist if it's not Sondra's baby."

Some 25 people attended the meeting with the cultural affairs officials. There were board members and other museum representatives--though not Broderick or Fornelli--as well as artists, veterans, and even neighbors of the museum. Weisberg waited until the meeting was about to conclude before she spoke her piece. Sounding like an exasperated mother who'd tried everything and was now resorting to tough love, she said, "Our first wish was that we were not involved in solving this problem. So this is our last attempt."

Weisberg said the city had waited for months for the museum to solve its own problems. But that hadn't happened and apparently wasn't going to. "I do not know the answer anymore," Weisberg said. "Eight or nine months ago I thought it was a matter of these wonderful people I'd met getting back together again. You didn't do it."

Back in the 70s Varco had discovered the delicate black-and-white drawings Fornelli had made in Vietnam--where he headed an aviation repair crew--with ink, coffee, and river water on map vellum. She took them around to galleries, but there was little interest. When she heard about the Vietnam Veterans' Arts Group, which Broderick, a former marine, had helped organize, she got in touch and combined forces. In 1981 the veterans held their first show at Chicago's NAME Gallery. Other exhibitions followed, to growing acclaim, and three years ago the veterans opened the new permanent home for their collection.

A year ago the New York art-book publisher Harry Abrams added to the museum's stature by publishing Vietnam: Reflexes and Reflections, The National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum, with a bloody painting by Broderick staring from the cover. "I call us the Holy Trinity," Fornelli joked in those happier times. "And I call us the Unholy Trinity," Varco added.

The founders talked openly back then about their philosophical disagreements. They agreed on the need to remain apolitical in assessing the art that came to them, but disagreed over whether the art must all be by veterans. Varco argued for a wider range of exhibits. Having fought so hard for a home for veterans' art, Broderick and Fornelli worried about losing the focus on it.

"The veterans that come here, we have never had a negative response from any of 'em no matter where they fit politically," Varco said at the time. "They're upset, but they're upset in a good way that somebody's finally telling the truth about war." Broderick added, "What we've sworn from the beginning was we'd never sanitize this."

Then the alliance began to crumble. Dale Samuelson, an artist who said the concept for the collection originated in his apartment, spoke up at the meeting to scold the museum's leadership. "Now you people have overstepped your boundaries with all this infighting," he declared. Thomas Murphy of the cultural affairs advisory board interrupted. "Dale, are you committed to the future of the museum?" Samuelson responded, "I don't know what I'm committed to."

Murphy had already met several times with Varco, Broderick, and Fornelli without getting beyond their differences. So now he presented the city's plan. Willrich would run the museum without salary until the end of next May if necessary. Beneath her, Varco would return to the museum as "cofounder/artistic director" at $60,000 a year. Broderick would become "cofounder/director of curation and artifacts" and Fornelli "cofounder/director of curation and conservation," each at $24,000 a year. Murphy added, "If the board members, the stakeholders, the artists wish to work together to come up with some other solution, we wish all the stakeholders well." But when board member Herman Sinaiko, a University of Chicago professor whose daughter Eve edited Vietnam: Reflexes and Reflections, asked Murphy to clarify what the city wanted from the board, Murphy said simply, "The board is being asked to accept the city's proposal."

Board chairman Richard Hackett said the proposal had "some good elements" and the board would meet soon to discuss it. Would he be open to expanding the museum's mission? "Why preclude anything?" Hackett asked. "The possibilities are endless."

Varco said after the meeting that she liked the city's plan and believed it was time for everybody "to put their personal hurt feelings aside." Fornelli said the next day that the museum was finally "being approached as the business that it is--in the areas of education and exhibitions and stuff. There's good people all around us and they've never been asked to help."

Broderick didn't pretend to be satisfied. Reached at the museum, he said he'd skipped the meeting because he "figured we were represented by our own people, and I had no idea what this meeting was going to be about. And until I knew exactly what it was about I wasn't going to go, because there's been a blizzard of lies directed at our institution and I'm running out of trust."

This isn't about hurt feelings, Broderick went on. "The issue is that the art in this museum is done by Vietnam veterans on the subject of the Vietnam war--or at least by Vietnam vets," he said. "Otherwise what's the point?" The exhibition at the museum now, "The Meridian: A Winding River," was proposed by Varco, and it troubles him. It cost $7,000, which is too much, he said; and because it's the work of contemporary Vietnamese artists it violates the museum's mission. "What this museum offers no other museum offers, and that unique quality is not something we want to water down," he argued. "Once you make big departures from your original mission statement it's a slippery slope, and what you wind up being is largely travelogue. This show that we have up here, 'Meridian,' is largely travelogue to me."

Asked about the artists who have threatened to withdraw their works, Broderick said, "They're being lied to. It's a tragedy."

Michael Page is one of those artists. An organizer of the letter-writing campaign to Weisberg, he's glad the city stepped in. "This doesn't belong to the artists and the founders anymore," he said after the meeting. "This belongs to the public, specifically because of the city of Chicago. This exists because of the city of Chicago."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.

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