Four Ways The Arts Are Serving Veterans and the Military

Posted by Mr. John W. Haworth, May 16, 2022 0 comments

As the nation observes Military Appreciation Month in May, it feels an appropriate moment to give attention to arts programs that support our military-connected communities, especially Veterans. The cultural sector plays an active and meaningful role serving Veterans and their families, and it is important to put this work within a broader context of both key challenges and issues. 

Of the more than two million American troops deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001, about a third have symptoms of post-traumatic stress, depression, and brain injuries. Many cultural organizations and individual artists have the capacity and interest to serve Veterans by providing them with opportunities to gain experience, new skills, and stronger ties in their home communities. For the cultural sector, the challenges of collaborating effectively with Veterans are demanding, and the work requires us to build relationships with Veteran organizations and develop specialized skills in how we serve Veterans. 

Given the special hardships and challenges members of the military face—including dealing with extreme stress and trauma issues and finding the wherewithal to reconnect with their daily routines, family and personal relationships, and their communities—the arts certainly play an integral role in advancing health and wellbeing. Here are four ways the arts are serving Veterans and others in the military and Veteran communities.

National Arts and Health Partnerships

Americans for the Arts is an advocate for arts initiatives serving Veterans, those on active duty including the National Guard and Reserves, and their families and caregivers. Their National Initiative for Arts & Health Across the Military connects the dots among the military, Veteran, public, and private sectors through publications, events, and a Facebook group. Americans for the Arts has played a significant role nationally in raising visibility, understanding, and support of arts and health services for our Veterans, and has actively engaged key leaders from both military and civilian fields to champion this work. Current president and CEO Nolen V. Bivens, a retired U.S. Army Brigadier General, testified before Congress in 2010 on this topic and believes that the arts are a valuable vehicle for advancing diplomatic and military relationships abroad, as well as a key factor in the health and wellbeing of military personnel.

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), in partnership with the U.S. Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs, “seeks to improve the health, well-being, and quality of life for military and veteran populations, most especially those exposed to trauma” through Creative Forces®: NEA Military Healing Arts Network. Begun in 2012, Creative Forces places creative arts therapies at clinical sites and supports arts programs serving military populations. Its new Community Engagement Grants program supports a wide variety of non-clinical arts engagement programs led by artists and/or creative arts therapists; and broad access to tools and resources is available via an online National Resource Center. The program encourages participants to create or otherwise engage with art and utilizes the arts to advance strong social connections to a community, which can help participants better deal with stress and support Veterans in adapting and reentering civilian life. 

There is a tremendous need for our country to address traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD), and while the arts cannot address the full extent and range of these issues, the cultural sector has found ways to address these challenges effectively. The arts have become part of the protocol of military health care as health professionals integrate arts disciplines into the ongoing care of troops recovering from a range of physical and mental injuries. 

Museums and the Military

Each summer, from Armed Forces Day (the third Saturday in May) through Labor Day, museums across the country participate in the Blue Star Museums collaboration of the Department of Defense, NEA, and Blue Star Families (the immediate family members of an active-duty service member). This program provides free admission for active-duty personnel and their families to museums across the country; as of this writing, registration is still open for museums to participate in 2022.

The American Alliance of Museums (AAM) plays a visible and initiative-taking role in support of arts programs for Veterans. In addition to AAM’s support for free museum admissions for Veterans, they also collaborate with the Army Museum Enterprise, a group of 57 Army museums who took the AAM “pledge of excellence” in 2016. Of these 57 museums, five are accredited by AAM, including the Frontier Army Museum (Fort Leavenworth, KS); U.S. Army Quartermaster Museum (Fort Lee, VA); U.S. Army Medical Department Museum (Fort Sam Houston, TX); U.S. Army Women’s Museum (Fort Lee, VA); and West Point Museum (U.S. Military Academy, West Point, NY).

A person poses between two paintings hanging on a wall. One painting shows an abstract shape suggesting a face and bold brushstrokes of light and color. The other depicts a city park full of people, while representations of war are visible underground.
Veteran artist Phyllis Thomas exhibiting two of her acrylic on canvas creations, “Celestial Kiss” (left) and “The Price of Freedom.” Photo courtesy of VETART.

Individual museums frequently offer specialized programming supporting military audiences. The Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York City has a commitment to helping Veterans develop social connections and provides hands-on activities and multisensory tours led by educators for military families. Through its partnerships with the Veteran Empowerment Center at a nearby Veterans Administration facility, the Philadelphia Museum of Art offers a customized tour created by Veterans and art-making workshops focused on developing new skills and confidence. The Museum of Glass in Tacoma, WA, offers glassblowing courses for service members and Veterans grounded in the therapeutic qualities of glassblowing to help build collaborative skills in a civilian context. From these workshops, the museum organized a public exhibition which was one of the most deeply moving exhibits the museum had ever developed. 

Community Organizations For Veterans

Community-based organizations like the Veterans Art Project (VETART) in San Diego serve Veterans and active-duty service members and their families and caregivers through process-intensive art engagement and art therapy programs that help participants transition from military to civilian life. VETART offers free art classes in ceramics, glass, woodworking, and bronze casting taught by artists from diverse cultural and social backgrounds. 

The Los Angeles-based United States Veterans’ Artists Alliance (USVAA), founded in 2004 by military Veterans and artists, supports artistic projects in theater, film, television, literature, and the visual arts that address concerns of Veteran artists. USVAA partners with major cultural institutions and universities in Southern California, and has compiled information about hundreds of Veteran artists dating back to the founding of the United States. USVAA is informed about key issues facing many Veterans, including homelessness and trauma.

A person sits behind a table on which sit medium sized ceramic sculptures of heads in the style of African royalty and decorative masks.
Reginald Green, Navy Veteran and artist, with his collection of ceramic sculptures. Photo courtesy of VETART.

Theaters Supporting Veterans

With support from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the NYC Council, Theatre Development Fund (TDF) helps Veterans attend Broadway shows by partnering exclusively with veteran support organizations who distribute theater tickets at no cost. Now in its third season, TDF has developed active partnerships with many American Legion posts, local corporations with veteran affiliations, and a diverse range of neighborhood- and community-based organizations serving Veterans. Attendee Robert Wadiak, a U.S. Navy Veteran, commented, “I hadn’t been to a Broadway show in years and the opportunity to go with my fellow Vets was an experience I’ll never forget. These shared experiences help me feel like I’m part of a community again.”

In 2016, Theatre Communications Group (TCG) launched the Veterans and Theatre Institute, a program for Veterans and active military personnel to create theater. An in-depth curriculum with related programming was developed over a three-year period with support from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. TCG built upon the success of the Blue Star Theatres Program with aims to build strong connections among theaters, military families, and their communities. Considerable attention was paid to deepening the relationships with military, educational, community, and theater partnerships. 

Founded in early 2021, Veterans Repertory Theater (known as VetRep) is a theater that brings talented Veterans and professional theater artists together to create live theater and events. VetRep manages a series of playwriting competitions in order to develop and mentor veteran writers. Artistic Director Christopher Paul Meyer, a former Army intelligence soldier and Bronze Star recipient, makes a powerful case for why it is important to bring Veterans into the theater—not just as audiences, but to tap into their creative potential: “Veterans have been exposed to danger, austerity, stress, task saturation, exhaustion, trauma. They have seen humanity at its most extremes—war, famine, drought, disease. They have experienced the emotions that come with such extremes—violent terrors, quiet fears, the weight of loneliness. Then there’s the dark humor, discipline, self-doubt, the giddy camaraderie. In short, Veterans have a wealth of experiential knowledge that can make for wildly unpredictable, compelling, entertaining theater.” 

The events of the last two decades, from 9/11 and prolonged wars abroad to increased levels of domestic terrorism and the pandemic, have been stressful for our society but especially acute for members of the military and Veteran communities. For many service members, finding ways to address issues related to trauma, racism, physical and mental health, and coming home are profoundly difficult. Participating in the arts both promotes health and wellbeing as well as enhances the daily lives of our service members, Veterans, their families, and caregivers.

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