by Luisa Baj (MA, 2016).
“Every veteran is a man or woman first with all the desires to engage in life as completely as a non-veteran; the disability does not diminish their desire to be included in every aspect of museum life,” notes museum docent Thalia, who is married to a veteran.
Throughout our nation’s history, Americans have gone to war in order to preserve our basic liberties. Servicemen and women who serve in war often undergo great sacrifices. Some are badly injured, while others are killed in action. Even those who leave the military physically unscathed often endure mental and emotional health issues. Healing, both physically and mentally, can take months or even years of hard work and patience. A community that provides support and outreach groups, aids in making veterans feel relevant and appreciated within the country they served for and live.
The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco are committed to providing physical access to the their collections and to develop inclusive programming for all members of the disability community. Through being a part of the local community support network for our servicemen and women, the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco (FAMSF) is dedicated to creating a program for veterans by veterans.
Since May 2016, I have had the privilege of contributing to the Access Programs at FAMSF under the mentorship and leadership of Rebecca Granados, Manager of Access Programs and ADA Coordinator. I began my summer internship at FAMSF with the goal of creating a veterans program. The veterans program aims to create a space where the participants can gain a sense of ownership for the collection, feel inclined to express their experiences (verbally and through art making experiences) and to create emotional connections to the artwork.
Through research and program development, I connected with Richard Burton, who leads the Creative Arts Therapy in the Psychosocial Rehabilitation and Recovery Center at the Fort Miley Veterans Affairs Hospital. He facilitates a program called the Art Guild, which is an outpatient therapy program aimed at helping veterans build community relationships and find personal expression and healing through the arts. I discussed with Richard the hope of creating a lasting partnership between the Museums and the San Francisco Veterans Affairs at Fort Miley, as the Art Guild program and partnership fits FAMSF’s mission to provide art education programs for people of all ages and interests.
When I first met with the Art Guild veterans, I made it clear that the Museum wanted to create a program that best served the veterans’ needs. I asked what needs they had, what they wanted in a museum program, and what they hoped to get out of a museum based program. Following this first meeting, I had the honor of being asked to observe and participate in future Art Guild meetings. For me to be a participant, I would have to fill out government forms, have a background check, fill out medical information, get TB tested twice, and fingerprinted. Even with all these unusual hurdles, I knew that participating in the Art Guild would be hugely beneficial in building bridges between FAMSF and the VA.
Within my first few meetings with veterans, I found that they were a very unique and specialized group within the community. Instead of having served in more recent wars, most of the veterans I would be working with were older, the majority of which come from the Vietnam War and the Korean War, with a couple from World War II. Richard explained that many veterans are hypersensitive to their surroundings and develop strong and deep connections to both art and music. As a result, for this veteran’s program the Legion of Honor’s collection will be used, since Fort Miley is within walking distance.
In meeting with a few veterans, I took detailed notes on what they need and what they want from a new veteran’s program. For the veterans, the program will need to be broad enough for anyone to try, it will need to focus on a variety of artistic mediums (ex. visual art, poetry, writing) and it will need to have significant depth in order to engage multiple levels of arts appreciation. In addition, the veterans that I have spoken with have all made it clear that the want more time (up to three hours) in the exhibitions.
The Museums’ previous veteran’s program was focused on personal tours, during which time the veterans would pick an artwork that most resonated with them. One artwork from the Legion that has resonated with many of the veterans is the “ The Wounded Lion” by Auguste Rodin. This work is important to the veterans because many of them see the lion as symbolic of their military career. The Rodin lion is powerful, a defender, a symbol of strength and yet it is depicted as injured, weak, and vulnerable. Veterans coming back from service also carry their wounds. This bond that is developed between the artwork and the veterans highlights the importance of visual arts in mental and emotional healing and health.
My time as an intern at the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco and as a student at the University of San Francisco has allowed me to utilize theories on social justice and accessibility, and has given the opportunity to help in creating a more inclusive and accessible museum. These two organizations have greatly influenced my career path and have ignited in me a passion for social justice and accessibility in museums.
For more information on USF’s Museum Studies program, click here.