In 1965, 22-year-old Chicago native Joe Fornelli was drafted and sent to Vietnam, where he served in an army helicopter unit.
“So many crazy things happened – people getting killed or wounded or burned,” Fornelli said. “You never get over it.”
He found solace in art.
Fornelli and his fellow veteran artists are trying to save their beloved National Veterans Art Museum in Chicago.
The museum houses over 2,000 pieces of art by veterans from World War II to the current wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya.
“We’ve got trained artists. We’ve got self-taught artists. We have people that probably would not even consider themselves artists,” said 64-year-old professional artist, Vietnam veteran, and the museum’s chairman Mike Helbing.
The National Veterans Art Museum began in 1981 as a traveling exhibit. In 1996, it found a home when Fornelli, an artist liaison and one of the museum’s co-founders, bought an abandoned building from Chicago for $1.
Although the building was located in the city’s South Loop, which eventually flourished into a residential neighborhood of expensive condominiums and townhouses, it failed to draw in tourists.
In 2007, the museum sold the building back to Chicago and used the money to get out of the financial hole. The building was subsequently sold to the Chicago Park District, and the museum is currently a rent-free tenant.
The National Veterans Art Museum has a use agreement with the park district that expires next April. According to Levi Moore, the museum’s executive director, that leaves less than a year to raise over $3 million dollars. The money would be used to go into business in a new location and ensure that operating costs are covered for several years.
Ford Bell, the American Association of Museums’ president, said that small museums are “vulnerable” in a weak economy for the reason that they do not have the endowments of larger museums and have less set aside.
When 44-year-old Dallas resident Robert Cogswell arrived at the National Veterans Art Museum’s third-floor galleries, his eyes welled up with tears. The art connected him to his brother, who is thousands of miles away, on his fourth tour of duty in Kuwait.
62-year-old Associate Professor Joseph Troiani, founder of the military psychology program at Chicago’s Adler School of Professional Psychology, uses the museum as a training ground for working with veterans.
“It gives them the opportunity to see the expression of war and combat,” said Troiani, who is a retired Navy commander as well. For veterans, “it’s so much a part of the healing process,” he said. “It’s very cathartic for vets” to either create their own art or see the work of others.
“We had a guy come in here,” recalled Fornelli. “I cry when I think of this. Anyway, he was going to kill himself. He was a Vietnam vet...He comes in here and looks around and says, “Jesus Christ I thought I was the only one who felt like this.””
“I don’t know of any art collection that has saved someone’s life,” Fornelli said.