By Mara Tapp
In a last-ditch effort to end the fighting among founders of the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum, city officials are asking what became of the peace plan they offered last November.
"I never heard back from the board since we made the offer, so we just assumed they didn't want to accept it," says Lois Weisberg, commissioner of Chicago's Department of Cultural Affairs. To be sure, Weisberg sent the museum a letter a few days ago asking what's going on. She wanted a response by this Friday afternoon.
The city's proposal would have installed Weisberg's assistant, Wendy Willrich, as unpaid acting executive director, overseeing the three founders, whose hostilities have spread to the ranks. A few artists have already pulled their works from the three-and-a-half-year-old museum at 18th and Indiana. Others are demanding their art be returned.
Despite appearances, cofounder Ned Broderick, who's president of the museum, insists "the future is bright" and "there's no problem with the city. There are those who pretend there is, but that's their business. We're running the museum." By that he means himself and Joe Fornelli, who last year ousted the third founder, Sondra Varco. "They're acting like it's a battle with the Vietcong and I'm the enemy," Varco says. The city's peace plan would install Varco as the museum's artistic director, at a salary greater than Broderick's and Fornelli's combined.
Fornelli has been happy to talk about the museum's plan to create a memorial by hanging dog tags for every American killed in Vietnam--some 58,000--from the ceiling. He hasn't wanted to discuss the museum's divisions. Broderick acknowledges that two artists withdrew their works, but he notes that "we now have 122 artists, which is more than we've ever had."
But Varco says 4 of the original 96 artists have pulled out, 3 more have so far been prevented from doing so, and more than half the artists have taken her side.
Last spring Broderick and Fornelli fell out with Varco over a range of issues, among them the purpose and philosophy of the museum. By summer Varco was being denied access to the premises, as artists waged a letter-writing campaign to bring her back. By fall, 68 artists had declared in writing that Varco should have custody of their works.
One of these artists was painter/sculptor Michael Aschenbrenner, whose pieces were turned over to Sondra Varco in January after he'd asked for that for months. "I was disappointed that the bureaucracy--meaning [chairman] Richard Hackett and the board of directors--have dishonored the wishes of the veterans similar to what had occurred during the 60s when we returned home from Vietnam," says Aschenbrenner. "It's again one more betrayal."
Aschenbrenner wrote Weisberg last August. This January he wrote Mayor Daley, telling him he'd pulled out of the museum over how Varco had been treated and explaining that he didn't want "to see the museum closed, but rather the current illegal board disbanded."
To Aschenbrenner's surprise, the mayor's office replied within two weeks. The letter from City Hall said Daley and his staff were "aware of the situation and deeply hope the parties resolve their differences and return to the task of securing the future of the museum. The museum was conceived to honor the soldiers who served in Vietnam by preserving and sharing with the world this unique combination of art and history. This mission is why the City of Chicago embraced this project and this mission must again become the main focus of everyone involved with the museum."
Aschenbrenner, who has work hanging in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, is particularly upset about the dispute over ownership. He thinks the museum has violated "what we all agreed on at the beginning, that the artists owned the work."
Farris Parker, a New Jersey artist who wants to pull his work out, says he got a letter from Hackett saying he couldn't have it. "I've never talked to Richard Hackett," says Parker, "and I'll tell you the truth, I'm looking forward to the day I look him in the face 'cause he's not a veteran, and for him to make these arbitrary decisions..." Parker's voice trails off.
He says he called the museum last spring and Broderick told him that Varco "was acting kind of sporadic." Suspicious, he called Varco "and I found that it was sort of like a coup that was going on." He believes Varco was willing to compromise but her partners weren't. "It started coming down to be like Ned's museum," Parker says, "and this is where I think his machismo jumped in there."
Parker and Aschenbrenner say the fighting has cost the museum grants and donations. Parker adds that Daley and Weisberg, who contributed the building and a million-dollar grant to start the museum, have been "insulted." Both veterans believe the museum must accept the city's plan. "I want Sondra back in there or they'll never see my work again and that's because Sondra is the key to this whole thing," says Aschenbrenner. "And I believe if she gets back in there and puts in a professional board that we'll be back on track in a year."
Varco says, "Richard Hackett wrote me a letter saying that he couldn't return the works because these were the assets of the museum, and I wrote back and said the artists are the assets of the museum. The reason that this has worked from the beginning is that I've always treated the artists as people and with great respect--and I still do."
Broderick says requests by artists to get their work back will be considered "on a case-by-case basis."
The artists aren't the only ones writing letters. "I have enormous respect for the art," says Herman Sinaiko, a professor of humanities at the University of Chicago who's been a board member since the museum started. "It is a powerful record of war by the guys who fought it that in some respects can tell you more about war than anything--except maybe the Iliad."
Last month Sinaiko wrote to his colleagues on the board and sent copies of his letter to the mayor and Weisberg. "I wanted to go on record expressing my increasing dismay at the increasingly likely collapse of the museum if this goes on unless a responsible board and a competent administration is put in place," he says. He recommended that the entire board resign and Weisberg's department then "supervise the creation of a new responsible board" and the restoration of Varco as executive director.
What he heard back from the board "wasn't an adequate response to my concerns." He did better at City Hall. Reading his letter, Weisberg realized that the city's plan had been tabled by the museum's board but never formally rejected, and she decided to force the issue. "In the interests of extending every courtesy to the museum," she notified its leadership, "I am willing to extend the offer until March 10, 2000....If I do not hear from you by the 10th, consider the proposal permanently withdrawn. Please know that you are under no obligation to accept the city's proposal but that it is time to address this matter once and for all."
"Veterans are just like everybody else," says Weisberg. "They're better off when they have community support. I think they will have a real problem raising the funds needed for this. People are not just going to come to it because it's there."
If the museum goes under, she says, "the loss to Chicago would be severe. It is something the city is proud of. It would really be a loss to the whole movement of the history of that war, which has probably turned out to be one of the most important wars in the history of the world."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.