A taxpayer watchdog group is calling on the Department of Veterans Affairs to showcase work by artists who have served in the military, after it was revealed the VA spent some $20 million on lavish art at facilities around the country.
The group, Open the Books, released an oversight report last week on spending at the VA -- showing the administration purchased millions in luxury art at the height of the health care scandal during which thousands of veterans died waiting to see doctors.
The $19.7 million tab included a $700,000 sculpture to adorn a California facility for blind veterans. The VA also spent $21,000 for a 27-foot fake Christmas tree; $32,000 for 62 "local image" pictures for the San Francisco VA; and $115,600 for "art consultants" for the Palo Alto facility.
The watchdog group, as well as several U.S. lawmakers, are now calling on the VA to feature the work of those it serves.
"No one tells the veterans' story better than a veteran," said Adam Andrzejewski, founder and CEO at OpenTheBooks.com.
"Veterans themselves should benefit from art displays, not vendors who sell the VA pricey art," Andrzejewski said in an email Thursday.
"For example, veterans have their own art museum. Why is the VA spending millions on lavish art when veterans are already producing great art?" he said.
Andrzejewski's group has started a social media campaign on Twitter with the hashtag #vetsart4va. Veterans can upload their art and "show the VA what they're missing," he said.
Such art can be found by members of the group, Veteran Artists Program, or VAP, a New York City-based nonprofit that takes artists who are also veterans and propels their works and careers into the mainstream creative arts community.
VAP covers the performing arts and fine arts -- showcasing many talented painters, sculptors and photographers whose work portrays the struggles and triumphs of America's brave.
Shawn Ganther, for instance, dreamed of becoming an artist prior to serving in the Air Force from 1998 to 2002.
"I want Americans to see soldiers as the heroes who fight and die in the name of freedom -- and to stop and reflect on the privileges they sometimes take for granted," said Ganther, who served with U.S. security forces in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar.
Yvette Pino, an Army veteran, served as a cook from 2002 to 2008. While in Iraq, Pino found a sense of solitude in producing artwork and earned the unofficial title of "Division Artist."
Veteran Artists Program has previously displayed artwork by veterans at the Pentagon and U.S. Senate office buildings. BR McDonald, founder and president of VAP, said his organization is currently working with at least 10 VA hospitals around the country to feature work by veteran artists.
McDonald said spending such money on veteran artists gives them a "voice to tell their story" and helps them transition into civilian life.
"The amount of good will that could be spent around this is tremendous," McDonald said.