Saturday, April 24, 2010

Fundred Comes to Philadelphia

LtoR: Mel Chin, Gary Steuer, Christina Roberts, the volunteer "ribbon cutter," Peter Palermo. Photo by J_Bussman

Last Sunday was the opening of Mel Chin’s Uncommon Wealth by the People of Philadelphia at The Fabric Workshop and Museum. Unfortunately I don't think this project has gotten as much media attention as it should because it frankly is hard to explain in an easy sentence or two, or "sound bite."

Mel Chin is an artist whose work often incorporates a social or civic engagement aspect. This Philadelphia project -  Uncommon Wealth - is part of a national initiative, the Fundred Dollar Bill Project, itself a spin-off of the project Operation Paydirt. Complicated enough yet? I first heard about this project not long after Hurricane Katrina when I met Mel in New Orleans at a museum exhibition opening - the project was just begin to take shape in his imagination.  Mel was seeking a way to use art to address the enormous calamity of New Orleans. He learned of the many children sickened by contaminated soil, which he initially assumed was caused by the flooding. What he learned was that the dangerous levels of lead contamination in soil within the city of New Orleans predated Katrina. Through further research he learned that scientific methods existed to actually neutralize the lead in the soil - much easier than replacing all the soil in the City. I won't even begin to try and explain the science of it - for that you'll have to contact Mel. He also learned this problem of lead contaminated soil was epidemic in many cities across the country (Philadelphia in fact is one of the worst, because of its age, industrial heritage, and profusion of old row houses and commercial structures almost all of which are filled with lead paint, that enters the soil when the buildings are demolished).   The estimated cost of this effort for New Orleans was $300,000,000. The strategy he developed was to have children (eventually expanded to anyone to anyone who wanted to participate; as Mel puts it there is an age cut-off of 125 years old) literally make mock hundred dollar bills, equal to  the $300 million needed.

A Fundred Dollar Bill is a blank template of a United States One Hundred Dollar Bill. In cities across the nation, Fundreds are being drawn by children in classrooms, art students, professional artists, senior citizens - anybody who wants to participate.  Mel has created a custom armored car - the Sous Terre - with a specially uniformed driver who is literally traveling the nation picking up the Fundreds (I should note the armored truck is powered by used vegetable oil, which is collected from schools along the way). On Sunday he made his stop in Philadelphia. The goal is to collect three million Fundreds—the equivalent of the cash needed to clean all dangerous soil in New Orleans—and then to present it to Congress with the request that the Fundreds be traded for real federal funding for the project in an equal amount. It is Mel's hope that this effort will not only help New Orleans but raise awareness and funds to help other cities - like Philadelphia - grappling with this serious public health challenge.

In Philadelphia the special Fundred installation is in The New Temporary Contemporary at the Fabric Workshop and Museum (FWM) - this is what opened last Sunday. The installation (behind a fabricated "vault" door) houses a "minting station" where visitors can draw their Fundreds and then display them on the gallery walls. At the opening I joined Mel, as well as Peter Palermo, Director of the City of Philadelphia Lead Poisoning Prevention Program, and Christina Roberts of FWM to officially open the gallery to the public. Scores of people showed up to participate - including my parents, who happened to be in town. It was great to have Peter there, to talk persuasively about the specific challenge of lead-contaminated soil right here in Philadelphia, and what parents can do to ensure their children are not affected. There are some great photos here.

As people draw their Fundreds they are being tacked to the walls and the goal is to fill the walls with these bills. Even the "minting station" is a work of art that plays off of Philadelphia history. It is hand-made by Mel to evoke an 18th Century writing desk. The legs of the long table are now uncarved but during the course of the installation he intends to carve them to replicate classic Philadelphia furniture in the PMA collection. The FWM will also fabricate a decorative "shipping pallet" on which the entire three million Fundreds will be stacked and presented to Congress.

So, if you are in Philadelphia, find your way over to FWM to make your Fundred and be a part of this project. If you are in another city, find out how to participate in your own town. You can also go to the Fundred web site itself and print out a template and send it in. This project represents a way in which art can help educate, inspire and galvanize people to address a critical community health challenge. The project is now at $31 million in Fundreds - only a bit more than 10% of the way there. the original goal was to present the $ in DC in July, but it now looks like the Fundred creation time will be extended to make sure the goal is reached. Help make the goal!

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