Danville VA spokesman says facility's artwork 'modest'
DANVILLE — As criticism swirls around the Department of Veterans Affairs for spending $20 million on artwork as veterans struggled with patient backlogs, officials in Danville argue that their art purchases have been "modest" and made with veterans in mind.
Wade Habshey, public affairs officer at Veterans Affairs Illiana Healthcare System in Danville, said the system has spent $56,171 on artwork over 10 years — far less than extravagant purchases by other VA facilities across the country, which a government watchdog group's report revealed recently.
Walking the halls of the Danville VA facility Tuesday, Habshey pointed out various art pieces that have been bought by the VA. Most were framed, military-themed photographs and large collages of similar images.
Habshey said the facility's artwork saluted the heritage and service of veterans.
"It's a very modest approach here. These photos tell their story," he said.
In Palo Alto, Calif., the VA commissioned an artist to create a glass-art installation on a new parking garage for more than $300,000, according to the report by Open The Books, a project of American Transparency, an Illinois-based nonprofit that posts government expenditures online, including a recent analysis of the VA's art purchases between 2004 and 2014.
Other high-priced examples, according to the report, included a 27-foot artificial Christmas tree for $21,500 delivered to a Chillicothe, Ohio, VA facility; two sculptures costing $670,000 for a VA in California; and $600,000 over five years for artwork at a VA hospital in Puerto Rico.
Other than military-themed photos in hallways, Habshey said the Danville VA's purchases included $9,385 to decorate two new free-standing residential group homes for veterans, called Green Houses. Also, Danville High School art teacher John Rackow was commissioned to paint a mural in a stairwell in one of the main buildings. Habshey said Rackow was paid $3,000 for the mural.
Habshey said the Danville VA's $56,000-plus in artwork has been for the benefit and enjoyment of veterans and to assist in their ease of movement around the medical center and other areas.
"Having that art is part of the healing process," he said, adding that the military-themed pictures are often hallway conversation starters for veterans.
The Open The Books report has garnered nationwide attention, including from Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., who wrote a July 26 letter to Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald, demanding a moratorium on art spending.
Kirk's letter listed examples of the large amounts spent at Palo Alto. Among them: $483,000 on a giant rock sculpture and $807,000 for site preparation for the giant rock; $365,000 for a sculpture at the aquatic center entrance; and $285,000 for art on the side of a parking garage displaying quotes by Abraham Lincoln and Eleanor Roosevelt that light up in Morse Code.
According to Kirk's office, art purchases at the VA in Danville since 2008 were:
— $2,980 on May 2, 2008, to install VA-provided window coverings and artwork.
— $2,900 on June 17, 2008, to install VA-provided artwork and furnishings.
— $25,739 on Sept. 2, 2009, for artwork for Community Based Outpatient Clinics, of which there are five in the VA Illiana System — in Peoria, Decatur, Springfield, Mattoon and West Lafayette, Ind.
— $15,054 on Aug. 11, 2010, for artwork and wall murals.
— $9,530 on Sept. 12, 2012, for an artwork display.
Habshey said local VA officials have no record of the $25,739 purchase in 2009, which according to USAspending.gov and Open The Books was for work done by California-based Artmoxm.
Habshey said Danville records only show a purchase from Artmoxm for $2,900.
In the Open The Books report, Artmoxm is identified as a vendor for many VA facilities across the country. The largest Artmoxm line-item contract in the report was for $349,000 in 2010.
In an e-mail to The News-Gazette, Kirk said spending money on decorative art while veterans wait for care is unacceptable and called on McDonald to block any more purchases.
"The VA has not taken the year-old directive to stop excessive spending ... and I'm calling for an immediate moratorium on art purchases until a Congressionally approved process is formally instated, so the American people are informed on how their tax dollars are spent," Kirk wrote.
Although VA Illiana officials said they have not permanently displayed any artwork created by veterans, Habshey said the Danville Art League partners with the VA, providing art classes for veterans. Additionally each spring, the VA sponsors a veterans art exhibition open to any veterans at the facility and in the community, he said.