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VA Art Spending: A Case of Misplaced Priorities

By Shaun Rieley

VA Art Spending: A Case of Misplaced Priorities

Several weeks ago, ABC News broke a story about VA’s extravagant spending on artwork at VA facilities.  The story was based on a report released by the watchdog group Open the Books, which showed that between 2004 and 2014, VA spent about $20 million on artwork for VA hospitals and other facilities.

Notably, this period includes the time leading up to the 2014 VA scandal, in which it was found that some VA medical facilities had manipulated wait time data due to overcapacity and an inability to provide the needed care in an appropriate amount of time.

There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong with spending money on beautifying VA facilities. Indeed, I am even prepared to accept VA’s explanation that “Artwork is one of the many facets that create a healing environment for our nation’s Veterans.”  Aesthetic considerations are an important aspect of creating a welcoming environment, to be sure.  But they are ultimately only a secondary consideration. (One might, by the way, wonder how artistic displays, such as a large display in Morse Code, that are inaccessible to most people, let alone most veterans, might assist in the healing process—but I digress.) The primary need for a healing environment to exist is timely access to effective care.  Extravagant spending on artwork while failing to fulfill the most basic requirements of health care clearly represents a case of misplaced priorities.

Some have suggested that VA should instead look to veteran artists to design such artwork, and perhaps even request other artists to donate their work.  But, as a recent Daily Caller piece shows, even when they have done so, they have had problems with accountability and logistics.

As a recent letter from Sen. Mark Kirk to VA Secretary Bob McDonald pointed out,

OpenTheBook.com, a nonprofit research organization located in Illinois, recently uncovered that a sculpture, entitled Meridian X, at the Edward Hines Jr. Veterans Affairs Hospital in Chicago does not appear in any public spending record since 2009. The sculpture was installed in November 2012 at Hines in a dedication ceremony.

According to the Daily Caller, “The sculpture was paid for through one of the construction contractors, but the art selection and the rest of the project was managed by the architect working on the reconstruction.”  But the fact that the chair of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Appropriations on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies was unable to find the record of the purchase demonstrates a serious problem with transparency and accountability in the procurement process.

Unfortunately, even when VA does something right by purchasing, essentially at cost, a piece of art from a veteran artist who claimed in the Daily Caller piece that he was willing to do it as a “labor of love,” it is still botched and obscured by incompetence.