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Chicago museum of veterans' art battles for survival

Joe Fornelli knows the art of survival.
/ Source: Reuters

Joe Fornelli knows the art of survival.

In 1965, when he was 22, the Chicago native 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. One time he used instant coffee and water to paint the realities of war.

Fornelli and his fellow veteran artists find themselves in the midst of another battle -- to save their beloved National Veterans Art Museum in Chicago, which is struggling.

The museum houses more than 2,000 pieces of art by veterans from World War II to the current conflicts in the Middle East.

"We've got trained artists. We've got self-taught artists. We have people that probably would not even consider themselves artists," said Mike Helbing, 64, a professional artist, Vietnam vet and the museum's chairman.

What is now the National Veterans Art Museum started in 1981 as a traveling exhibit but found a home in 1996 when it bought an abandoned building from Chicago for one dollar.

"It was just a rat hole," said Fornelli, an artist liaison and one of the co-founders.

The building was in Chicago's South Loop, a largely industrial neighborhood then, that museum directors hoped would eventually draw tourists. Instead, it boomed as a residential neighborhood of expensive condos and townhomes.

In 2007 and in dire financial straits, the museum sold the building back to the city using the money to dig out of a financial hole. The building was then sold to the Chicago Park District, and the museum is now a rent-free tenant.

"They hoped things would turn around but did not have a turnaround plan," said Levi Moore, the museum's executive director, who was hired a year ago.

The museum has a use agreement with the park district that expires next April. After that, the museum will have to go. Moore said that leaves less than a year to raise more than $3 million dollars and find a new home. The money would pay to set up shop in a new location and ensure operating costs were covered for several years.

With the country slowly digging out of the economic downturn, the timing could not be worse.

More than 70 percent of museums in the United States reported economic stress, according to an April 2011 report from the American Association of Museums. Ford Bell, the association's president, said small museums are "vulnerable" in a fragile economy because they do not have the endowments of larger museums and have less in reserve.

On the day Dallas resident Robert Cogswell, 44, and his friends visited the museum they had to walk through a bevy of young children in a summer camp hosted by the park district to get to the elevators.

But when they arrived at the third-floor galleries the art moved Cogswell to tears. The images and exhibits connected him to his brother, who was thousands of miles away deployed on his fourth tour of duty in Kuwait.

"There are a lot of soldiers going through this for us, so that we can live the way we live," Cogswell said as he meandered through the rooms.

The work on display ranged from photographs to paintings to sculptures, like Helbing's seven-foot-tall steel and felt piece, which he called a human flame as a tribute to a friend who died when his helicopter went down in Vietnam.

"His name was Greg, I think," said Helbing, who spent 15 months in combat. "I know what he looked like. He had glasses, 6'3', blond-headed ... He was charred like a burned hot dog."

Associate Professor Joseph Troiani, 62, founder of the military psychology program at Chicago's Adler School of Professional Psychology uses the museum, which attracts 4,500 visitors a year, as a training ground for working with vets. Over the years he has taken hundreds of people there.

"It gives them the opportunity to see the expression of war and combat," said Troiani, also a retired Navy commander. For veterans, "it's so much a part of the healing process," he said. "It's very cathartic for vets" either to produce their own art or see the work of others.

Every piece has a story. In the middle of one room laid a statue of a dying Iraqi man waving his hands in the sand. On one wall hung peaceful landscapes created by a Vietnam vet later in his life. And suspended from the second floor ceiling were more than 58,000 hanging dog tags, one for every U.S. casualty of Vietnam.

"That's what brought the artists together, the guys who didn't make it," said Fornelli.

But he said the veterans who did come home and continue to return home, keep the museum relevant and vital.

"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.