Baltimore-based Veteran Artist Program seeks to propel veterans into mainstream arts community

Non-profit founded by Brian McDonald develops opportunities for artists who put their careers on hold while serving their country

  • BR McDonald, founder and director of the Veteran Artist Program, is a musician and singer.
BR McDonald, founder and director of the Veteran Artist Program,… (Barbara Haddock Taylor,…)
February 17, 2013|By Mary Carole McCauley, The Baltimore Sun

When bad luck struck, John Mann was all but certain that he'd have to abandon his dreams.

In 2005, Mann was a 28-year-old film school graduate who was just starting to make inroads in the difficult East Coast television industry. He hoped to one day move to Los Angeles and direct movies. And then, his wife fell ill while she was pregnant with their son.

"Even though things had been starting to go our way, we were getting paid almost nothing," says Mann, 35, of Crownsville.

"It really became a situation where we needed really good health insurance and we needed it right now. A choice had to be made, so I joined the Army. My college classmates were pursuing their dreams and getting ahead while I worried that a career in film might no longer be an option for me. It was a fear that never went away."

Mann's wife recovered her health and the couple had a second child, a daughter. In 2008, Mann, now a sergeant, returned to the U.S. after serving 15 months in Afghanistan. Some time later, he heard about a fledgling organization that helped assuage his career worries — a group that develops opportunities for members of the armed forces to express themselves creatively. It was the Veteran Artist Program, based in Baltimore.

Mann began work on a one-hour documentary called "Souls of Valor" about three recipients of the Medal of Honor that later was broadcast on the Pentagon Channel. In 2011, the man who doubted that he'd ever work in film again picked up a 2011 Emmy Award from the Chesapeake Bay chapter of the Nation Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.

"It's pretty daunting to have to put your dreams on hold while you serve your country," Mann says. "The Veteran Artist Program shows people that there's still an outlet where they can do what they loved before they enlisted."

The organization (known colloquially as "VAP") will be showcased Wednesday in Annapolis at the 2013 Maryland Arts Day celebration. The daylong seminar is an opportunity for members of the arts advocacy group Maryland Citizens for the Arts to meet with the state legislators who will decide this spring whether to approve an extra $2 million in funding for the arts for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

The budget contains the first increase after four years of flat funding, so organizers thought long and hard before selecting an arts agency to highlight that they thought could most persuasively make their case.

"We think that in three or four or five years, VAP is going to become a huge national organization," says Doug Mann, chairman of the board for Maryland Citizens for the Arts. "This is a group with enormous potential. When anyone hears about VAP, their ears perk up. They see what's been done already and how much more could be done in the future, and they want to get involved."

The group was formed in the fall of 2009 by Brian McDonald, a trained Arabic linguist and classical singer and musical theater performer who studied opera in college. McDonald, who prefers to be called "BR," spent several years as a child in Taiwan and also is fluent in Mandarin.

"When I got out of the Army in 2008, I realized that there was a need for an organization that could propel veterans into the mainstream arts community," he says.

"Most people think that being a member of the military and being an artist are opposites. They think that to enlist, you need only hard, physical skills, like shooting a gun or jumping out of a plane. They think that you have to conform and can't think creatively.

"But behind every soldier's hard skills are soft skills that require them to think out of the box and to communicate with one another. Ironically, my background of living overseas and my experience as a performer are what helped me succeed in the Army."

The Veteran Artist Program, which had a budget in 2012 of $220,000, sees itself as a multidisciplinary arts group. Though all its members have served in the armed forces, not every project that the program sponsors has a military theme or a healing focus. As McDonald puts it: "We're not an art therapy group."

Thus, Vets on Sets, a branch that seeks to bring more veterans into the filmmaking industry, has in the past two years made two short documentaries, and a third, full-length film is in post-production.

A visual arts program coordinates group exhibits including a coming show at the Pentagon that will include landscapes alongside still-life portraits of combat boots. The juried exhibit will display the work of 49 veteran artists nationwide who were winnowed from a pool of 435 applicants. The show opens in July and will run for a year.

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