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by Victor M. Cassidy
|Recently, Artnet Magazine paid extended visits to three small Chicago art museums, where we discovered how valuable -- and fragile -- such institutions are. The Smart Museum seems to be doing everything right, but the Chicago Athenaeum at Schaumburg wobbles esthetically. And a leadership crisis imperils the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum (NVVAM).
"Over half the earth I came"
Nearly 3,000,000 Americans went to the war in Vietnam. Some took photographs of it. Some made art about it. One hundred and twenty veterans have work in the permanent collection of the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum. It is the only institution of its kind.
Vietnam War art is straightforward, raw and ugly. You see pain, fear, blood, broken bodies and filth. You learn what it was like for ordinary soldiers in Vietnam -- young, scared and ambivalent about an enemy who didn't want to be there any more than they did. You stay at the museum much longer than you planned. You are drained when you leave.
Ned Broderick, one of the veteran artists, served with a Marine battalion in 1966-67. "We arrived in Vietnam with 1,250 guys," he recalls, "and in six months we were down to 430." Broderick's photograph of a dead Viet Cong soldier is accompanied by his poem that includes the lines, "Over half the earth / I came / to kill you. / Who never saw my face / And never knew my name."
After leaving the Marines, Broderick attended art school and made his living as a painter. In 1980, he teamed up with Joseph Fornelli and five other artists to found the Vietnam Veterans Art Group. Their first show opened in October of 1981 at N.A.M.E. Gallery, which was then Chicago's leading alternative space. The veterans served warm beer and C-Rations on opening night, instead of wine and cheese.
N.A.M.E. Gallery worried that protesters might target the exhibition, but these fears were unfounded. Veterans came from everywhere to see the show. Many brought their own artworks and photographs, which were immediately displayed. N.A.M.E. became a gathering place for these men, who spent long, cathartic hours talking about their experiences.
The Vietnam Veterans Art Group subsequently organized touring art exhibitions, which visited 30 venues in the U.S. between 1983 and 1992. Numerous artists joined the group -- American servicemen and women, Australians, Vietnamese and even a former member of the Viet Cong.
Garbage and dead rats
In 1993, two Chicago real estate developers gave the veterans a temporary exhibition space rent-free on 18th Street, about two miles south of the Loop. Broderick was alone in the gallery one day when a woman visited and asked him many questions. He did not know at first that she was the mayor's wife.
"A few days later," says Broderick, "Mayor Daley came in with members of his staff. He said he had only 30 minutes to spare, but he stayed two hours. The mayor was very, very sensitive. He had read widely and knew a lot about Vietnam.
"Finally," says Broderick, "the mayor asked what it would take to keep the collection in Chicago. I said we needed a permanent home. He asked an assistant whether the city owned the building across the street. The answer was 'Yes,' and the Mayor said that we could have it."
This building, an abandoned three-story warehouse, was structurally sound, but filled eight feet deep with garbage and dead rats. A $1-million gift from the city and much volunteer work by local construction firms and labor unions transformed it into a museum. The public exhibition areas were designed with timely assistance from a curator at the Field Museum of Natural History.
The NVVAM has a sunny central atrium, new electrical and plumbing systems, a gift shop, an elevator, a staircase and fully equipped offices, storage areas and workshops. There are professional-level conservation facilities for art and the collection of 10,000 photographs.
The museum opened to the public in August 1996. Today its operating budget comes from admissions, member donations, government funds and a smattering of grants. "Vietnam is still controversial, still a dirty word 30 years later," says Broderick. "Corporations that made so much money from the war won't support us now."
More immediately threatening is a fierce leadership crisis. No one is talking, but it seems that Broderick and Fornelli, who are salaried museum employees, want to show work by Vietnam veterans only. Sandra Varco, who has played a key role in the veteran artists' success since 1980, favors a more open exhibition policy. Until recently, when she resigned, Varco was the museum's CEO. Broderick and Fornelli reported to her.
The dispute has fractured the community of veteran artists. Working through the courts, Varco had some works by her allies removed from the museum. Broderick and Fornelli still hold their jobs, but acknowledge that they do not make decisions. Chicago's Department of Cultural Affairs is trying to settle the dispute.
We hope the crisis ends soon. The museum is a powerful memorial to the soldiers who fought in America's most divisive war. It must stay open.
"Everything's in the city"
The adjective "underserved" is usually applied to big-city minority neighborhoods, which don't get a fair share of government services. But the 1.7 million people in Chicago's suburbs were once underserved, too, because they had no art museum close to home. But now they have the Chicago Athenaeum at Schaumburg (TAM), a branch of the Athenaeum Museum (TCA), the architecture and design museum that Christian Narkiewicz-Laine founded in 1988 (see "Prairie Smoke," Jan. 4, 2000, for details).
TAM at Schaumburg includes the International Sculpture Park, that shares a landscaped 40-acre site with municipal offices and a performing arts center; and the art museum, in temporary quarters, about one mile away in the Schaumburg town center.
Al Larson, Schaumburg village president (i.e., mayor), explains that several years ago the village board acquired a disused shopping center, intending to develop it into a town center. At a forum called the Mayors' Institute of Design, Larson presented his initial plan and was told that the town center should have cultural facilities, not just shops. Not long after, the village board invited the Schaumburg public library to expand into the center.
The project got national publicity and attracted Narkiewicz-Laine's attention. According to him, "suburban business and cultural leaders told us that no suburb has a serious art museum -- everything's in the city. Suburbanites don't want to come downtown to face parking problems and potential crime, so we decided to bring a museum to them." Narkiewicz-Laine approached Larson with a grand plan for a multi-building museum campus.
Everyone agreed that it would take years to raise funds, design facilities and build them, so TAM started by creating the sculpture park. Narkiewicz-Laine used his contacts to acquire works by Makoto Sei Watanabe, Jerzy S. Kenar, Dennis Oppenheim, Jerry Peart and several other prominent sculptors as gifts or at low cost. The Schaumburg public works department installed the art. For very little outlay, the village got a handsome sculpture park.
The park succeeds because TAM has intelligently placed high quality work on a rambling, semi-wooded site. Some of the artists helped install their sculptures. Other pieces were placed by Ioannis Karalias, an architect, sculptor, and TCA mainstay, who says that he spends "several hours" on the site before making decisions. Karalias expects that the sculpture park will add "two or three pieces" each year.
Miscellany of objects
The museum itself occupies a giant barn-shaped structure, formerly used for commercial purposes, in one corner of the Town Center. On the first floor is a reception area, a gift shop, exhibition space, classrooms, offices and kitchen, while the second is reserved for exhibitions. We visited the museum for its official opening in January of 1999 and again on Thanksgiving weekend, when its latest group of shows opened. We do not know what to make of it.
On the first floor we found a miscellany of objects from TAM's permanent collection -- a Biedermeier chair, furniture by Frank Lloyd Wright, a fancy Danish sound system, some amusing plastic kitchen utensils, a motorcycle that looked ready to take flight, and more. In the exhibition area, we found a heartbreaking show of art by Russian children who have died from radiation sickness caused by the Chernobyl meltdown. There was also an exhibition of works by young people who participated in TAM's summer community art program.
Upstairs was "Portraits of Life and Death: New Art by Latin American Artists of Chicago" with work by 16 men and women from the collection of Erasmo Salgado, a Chicago businessman. Though often technically accomplished, this art is filled with clichés -- peasants in big sombreros, Mayan temples and dancing skeletons. Chicago has better Latino artists than these.
"Portraits of Life and Death" was the only fine art exhibition at TAM. The installation was the worst we have ever seen. Three large sculptures from previous shows sat unlabeled and unlit in the gallery. Only half of the Latin American artworks were labeled.
The gallery's high loft ceiling is dark-colored. It eats light and seems to descend upon visitors. The show was abominably lit with some pieces in deep shadow, some overlit, and some lights blinding visitors. We wondered whether the lighting had been changed since the previous show.
TAM had months to organize "Portraits of Life and Death" and several days to install it. We conclude that the museum is overextended and trying to grow too fast. It needs an art curator and a competent installation staff.
Mayor Larson says he is pleased with the museum. "We've always had a commitment to culture," he states. "It's part of the quality of life. Eventually the new museum building will go up. Even now, the sculpture park and museum are cultural assets for Schaumburg. They are just one more thing we need to be a complete community."
"Don't have to hang Louvre-style"
On Nov. 23, 1999, the David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art on the University of Chicago campus reopened to the public following an eight-month, $2-million interior renovation and a brilliant reinstallation of its collection. The museum traded storage areas for several thousand square feet in new exhibition space. Though its exterior dimensions have not grown, the museum feels brand new.
Established in 1967 with a $1 million gift from the Smart Foundation and named for the founders and publishers of Esquire Magazine, the Smart Museum has been supported primarily by the University of Chicago community and has grown through gifts. Its collection of 7,500 objects includes excellent works, though only a few pieces by the most famous artists. The Smart has no Picasso, for example, no Kandinsky and only one small sculpture by Matisse.
According to Kimberly Rorshach, who became museum director in 1994, "the Smart's collection was presented chronologically for many years. This did not work. We were trying to be all things to all people and needed to become much clearer about our esthetic direction.
"We concluded that we are a university art museum," she continues. "We own some Old Masters, but don't have to hang them Louvre-style. Since the University of Chicago teaches art history thematically, we decided to present our collection that way and show its strengths. Our ideal viewer is a university student or local schoolchild, who may be visiting an art museum for the first time.
"It does not really matter that we don't have a Rembrandt," she adds, "because big names like that can get in the way of seeing the art. People have been taught all their lives that Rembrandt is fabulous, but they may not know why -- and may be overwhelmed instead of enlightened."
How to look
The new Smart Museum is an excellent place to learn how to look at art. Each area contains relatively few works, which have been very carefully selected, installed, and lit by museum curator Richard Born. There is just enough art to engage us. We slow down, examine each piece, and make comparisons. We get so caught up in looking at the art that we don't miss the big names.
The first area we enter contains work by Jacques Lipchitz, Arthur Dove, Raphael Soyer, Julio Gonzalez and other 20th-century artists. The small sculptures are especially choice. The installation of Oriental Art has a selection of ceramics and bronzes from China, Japan, and Korea. Throughout, the Smart provides informative, well-written labels.
One room houses "The Place of the Antique in Early Europe," an exhibition that mixes paintings, engravings, decorative objects, coins, medals and books to show how Greek and Roman culture influenced early modern Europe. Though the theme of this show is hardly new, the Smart finds fresh ways to present the material. Here again, the installation, lighting and labels are superb.
A somewhat less successful contemporary area contains paintings by the Chicago Imagists (who started out near the University of Chicago), along with a striking Fairfield Porter and other works. There is a visiting show called "Surrealism in America during the 1930s and 1940s" and more art in a tiny space near the contemporary room.
All in all, the Smart Museum presents its collection better than any other venue in Chicago, small or large. The Smart is now Chicago's best small art museum. With Rorschach and Born at the helm, it can only improve. We expect great things from it.
VICTOR M. CASSIDY writes on art from Chicago.