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When the US military evaluates its assets, it counts its fighter jets, attack helicopters, anti-tank missiles, naval destroyers, grenade launchers, trained personnel, and anything else a fighting force might need. A perhaps lesser-known asset to the military arsenal is its series of art collections, containing tens of thousands of works.

The main purpose of these art collections is to inform the public about what the US military does. Joan Thomas, art curator at the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Quantico, Va., said, “Our collection is about the human experience and when people are thrust into a very difficult situation.” In wartime Eastern Europe and when so much entertainment glorifies combat, the tone of the marine art collection is not “hurrah, aren’t we great,” says Thomas, but a “faithful representation of what someone has experienced”.

Some images in the Army Art Collection are ‘more macho’, says Sarah Forgey, its chief curator, while ‘some are actually anti-war, questioning the wisdom of what they are doing’ . There has been less work of the latter style, she adds, since the army became an all-volunteer force.

Each of the five branches of the U.S. military (Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marines, and Navy) has its own collection, curator, and exhibit schedule. Most of the works in these collections do not show violence. In combat, Thomas says, “combat artists are supposed to fight first” and then sketch out what they see. Many works depict the daily routines of enlisted soldiers. A painting in Martin Cervantez’s Army collection, for example, depicts a sentry wearing a poncho in a downpour and urinating into a PVC pipe, “that’s how you’re supposed to do it when you’re in a forward position. “, Forgey says.

Most of what soldiers do is other than actual combat. For example, two recent paintings, oil spill and Safety Hazard by Amy DiGi, an artist from Yorktown Heights, New York, depicts the Coast Guard responding to a damaged tanker that ran aground last fall during Hurricane Ida. Both were included in a recent exhibit of new additions to the Coast Guard collection at the Salmagundi Club in New York.

Rarely Deployed Collections

The Coast Guard makes a greater effort than other US military branches to display its holdings, which have grown to more than 2,000 pieces in the 41 years since the program began. The Marine Corps, which has collected more than 11,000 works since 1942, displays pieces in a hall of the National Museum of the Marine Corps. The army’s collection of 35,000 coins, begun during World War I, is almost entirely stored at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. The US Air Force Art Program, started in 1950 and numbering approximately 9,300 pieces, is accessed primarily through the Air Force website.

Civilian artists and active duty soldiers often hear about the military’s interest in art by word of mouth. Don Borie, a retired graphic designer from Ocala, Florida, heard about the Coast Guard’s art program from another exhibitor at a local art show. Borie says he reached out to the program coordinator, who shared a list of themes sought at the time. “I chose ‘combat piracy abroad’ and submitted the painting Somali shakedownhe says, which depicts the coast guard intercepting pirates (it is now part of the coast guard collection).

The United States Army and Navy collections are the largest and oldest, containing drawings and paintings of enlisted soldiers and conscripts that span more than a century. James Pollock, a painter from Pierre, South Dakota, was drafted into the army in 1966 and served for a time as a combat artist in the US Army’s Combat Artist Program in Vietnam. The program sent teams of artist-soldiers to Vietnam between 1960 and 1970 to record their experiences, rotating them after 135 days (60 in Vietnam and another 75 in Hawaii to create finished works).

Pollock submitted hundreds of works to the Army collection, almost all of which depict the mundane activities of soldiers rather than combat scenes. “I tried to create works related to what I really experienced,” he says.

Embedded artists

Curators of war art collections do not have a budget to purchase works, so each new acquisition is donated by an active duty member, veteran, or interested individual. DiGi has never served in the military, but her husband is an army veteran. In 2011, she applied to the Coast Guard for a five-day embedded artist deployment and was sent the following year to a boot camp in Cape May, New Jersey. There she observed a group of new recruits in training, producing around 30 sketches, several of which she turned into paintings in her home studio and donated to the Coastguard collection.

All branches of the military allow civilian artists to apply for short-term unpaid stints with military units, with the sole requirement that the artists donate the resulting pieces to that branch’s art collection. Some branches also have combat artists who go out into the field or on ships for longer periods of time. “They are civilians and are treated like embedded journalists, but they are paid by the Navy,” says Gail Munro, chief curator of the Navy Art Collection, which includes more than 20,000 works.

Portions of that collection, she adds, are on touring exhibits at state and county museums across the country. “There are usually three exhibits at a time,” she says. Otherwise, the works often hang in high-level military offices, including the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia.