MADISON – A group of local veterans is calling for the removal of graffiti and other spray-painted messages on the side of the Wisconsin Veterans Museum in downtown Madison.
Members of Wisconsin Veterans for a Clean Museum say the spray paint on the exterior walls of the museum contains “inflammatory language” that hurts not only Wisconsin veterans but also the families of those who died serving the country.
The Wisconsin Veterans Museum on Mifflin Street was one of dozens of downtown Madison buildings marked by graffiti following protests against racism and police brutality sparked by the killing of George Floyd in late May.
The group of veterans has raised more than $20,000 to cover the spray-painted sections of the museum with images that honor Wisconsin veterans, particularly Black service members, according to group organizer and U.S. Marine Corps veteran BJ Ganem. The images would have a plastic covering, making any future graffiti easy to wash off.
But the group’s effort has stalled in recent weeks.
After initially getting permission from building owner Greg Rice to move forward with the project, that permission was rescinded and the museum foundation’s board voted against the project on July 7.
WVM Foundation spokesperson Jennifer Carlson said the board voted not to participate in the project because the foundation’s mission is to “monetarily support the museum’s inside programmatic activities.”
The foundation’s charter does not allow it to collect funds outside its mission, according to a July 21 statement.
Museum foundation president Daniel Checki in a statement to the Journal Sentinel Thursday said the foundation supports “the cleaning and opening” of the museum.
Ganem expressed confusion over the vote against the project and noted the group has already raised the funds, gotten permission to use the images and organized the installation.
He said Wisconsin Veterans for a Clean Museum contacted Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Mary Kolar after the vote to ask whether she supported repairing the museum but did not receive a response.
Ganem indicated building owner Rice’s change of heart was due to pressure from the state. He indicated Kolar in a June 11 meeting warned the group that creating the outdoor exhibit covering the spray paint “could increase the security risk for the museum.”
Carla Vigue, a spokesperson for the Department of Veterans Affairs, said she was “not sure where they are getting that information” and noted that cleanup efforts would have to go through the building’s owner.
Neither the department nor the Wisconsin Veterans Museum own the building, but the DVA does lease space.
Vigue said in an email to the Journal Sentinel “there is a plan in place to clean the museum” and said communications with the building owner indicate “the landlord is working with its insurance company and anticipates potentially starting the cleanup next week.”
Workers on Friday afternoon took down the spray painted boards on the museum’s windows. Vigue said the landlord had been outside earlier in the day and the clean up effort was underway.
Rice, the owner of the building, did not respond to an interview request from the Journal Sentinel.
He told The Associated Press on Thursday he was in discussions about what will happen next related to the graffiti and the murals, but no decision had been made. He declined to comment further, according to the report.
Ganem emphasized that the veterans group is not trying to “suppress anyone else’s feelings” or discredit the work of people speaking out on racial injustices. He said he supports “everybody’s ability to petition our government for changes.”
“We definitely support the systematic changes needed in the country, but we also know that we’ve seen what it takes to get people fighting against each other,” he said. “(When you) let stuff like this sit… you get people who want to be nefarious to point to it as a way to get people upset.”
He added that the group does not have a problem with the murals commissioned by the the city on the boarded windows of the museum, which include a portrait of George Floyd.
Ganem called the project “a unique opportunity to work together and inspire some healing.” He added that if many people tell them this isn’t a good idea, they won’t push it.
“If Wisconsinites tell us ‘hey, with all the stuff going on, this isn’t a priority and we think it should stay there…’ then we will stand down,” Ganem said. “But we want to bring this into the conversation first.”
Follow Lawrence Andrea on Twitter @lawrencegandrea.