Veterans Art Museum to leave South Loop
04/11/2012 10:00 PM
The National Veterans Art Museum has been a South Loop fixture for the past 16 years. But that’ll change by the end of November, when the museum will pack its collection and move somewhere else.
The museum is still working on securing a new location, but one thing is certain — it won’t stay in the South Loop.
The National Veterans Art Museum traces its origins to a 1981 exhibit in a gallery on Hubbard Street. The exhibit showcased the work of Vietnam War veterans who used art to deal with the difficulties of re-entering civilian life.
In 1996, the museum moved to the then-struggling Near South Side. Hoping that the museum would spark to South Loop revival, the City of Chicago sold them an abandoned building at 18th Street and Indiana Avenue for $1.
The ensuing wave of redevelopment brought more visitors, but the museum still couldn’t earn enough profit to stay afloat. In 2009, it resold the building back to the city.
The Chicago Park District used the first two floors as the field house for the nearby Women’s Park and Gardens. According to museum spokeswoman Sarah Eilefson, the terms of the sale allowed the museum to keep using the third floor rent-free until April 2012.
Eilefson explained that the museum’s board of directors has been looking for an alternate location since the agreement was signed. But the search did not start in earnest until Levi Moore became the museum’s executive director in July 2010.
The pressure increased when the park district let the museum known it intended to take possession of the third floor once the lease expired.
“We had a verbal confirmation for months,” said Eilefson, “But we didn’t actually have it in writing until March.”
The Park District is hoping to use the new space to expand the field house’s family and recreational programs. Park District spokeswoman Zvezdana Kubat mentioned the possibility of new fitness and meeting rooms, but said the park district wouldn’t be able to make any concrete plans until the museum moves out.
With the new location still uncertain, museum and the Park District recently negotiated an extension until November 30.
The museum has narrowed down its search to two potential sites — one in River East one in Portage Park. Moore explained that while cost was a factor, the museum is also looking for a space where they will have more flexibility, especially when it comes to schedules.
“We want to be in the building where we have a right to stay open little bit later,” he said. “Thursdays and Fridays in particular.”
The museum was also trying to find a location that would attract families.
“We want a location that has other things,” Moore explained. “Other stores and attractions, so that if a family wants to spend an afternoon, they can do other things.”
For Moore, the move is more than just a chance to open a new location. The museum will have a central location, along with satellite galleries throughout Chicago and its suburbs.
Over the past fourteen years, the River East neighborhood has seen significant commercial and residential redevelopment, becoming a popular shopping and dining destination. It’s within walking distance of Navy Pier, one of Chicago’s most popular tourist attractions.
Because the negotiations with the owner of the potential site are still ongoing, Moore declined to specify where the museum would be located.
For Portage Park, the museum considered the space at Six Corners, a shopping district clustered around the three-way intersection of Irving Park Road, Cicero and Milwaukee avenues. Six Corners is one of the largest shopping districts on the Northwest Side. The new museum would be located across the street from the Portage Theater, one of Six Corners’ most popular features.
However, Portage Theater may not be in business for much longer. The Chicago Tabernacle Church is currently trying to purchase the building and turn it into a new house of worship. While this wouldn’t impede the museum’s operations, it would make it harder for restaurants and entertainment venues to open in the building’s vicinity, which would adversely affect visitor traffic.
Moore told the Chicago Journal that the museum is fairly close to announcing a new location.
“We will be able to make an announcement in the next 2-4 weeks,” he said. “Our ultimate goal is to have it open at a new location by Veterans Day.”
Moore and Eilefson emphasized that they would have stayed in the South Loop if they found the right location. Early in the process, the committee considered spaces in Pilsen along 18th Street, near Chinatown along Cermak and a space somewhere in Bronzeville. They were all rejected.
Eilefson said that, ultimately, the museum had to look at a bigger picture.
“This is a game-changing point,” Eilefson said. “We have the potential to set up a location that would ensure that the Veterans Art Museum would be around forever. If we end up in a location that doesn’t get much foot traffic, we are doomed.”