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Bills, Bills, Bills

Fundreds aims to make News Orleans lead-free through a nationwide community arts project

Ashby Foote

By Bret McCabe | Posted 3/24/2010

Mel Chin/Art and Social Reform

MICA's Falvey Hall March 31 at 7 p.m 

For more information about Fundreds and Fundreds in Baltimore, visit fundred.org.

The money truck is coming. By the time it reaches Baltimore on April 17, it will have traveled practically across the country. It started off last November making pickups around New Orleans, Morgan City, and Monroe, La. Since embarking on its criss-cross path around the country this past January, it has stopped at schools from Loxahatchee, Fla., to La Jolla, Calif., and at community and arts centers from Kansas City, Mo., to Atlanta, Ga. It's not an ordinary armored truck, mind you--it's been retrofitted to run on waste vegetable oil and painted a gradient brown to green as a visualization of its soil-to-grass goal--and it's not picking up old fashion American greenbacks. It's ultimate destination is the U.S. Congress, but slightly less important than where the money is going is why artist Mel Chin is doing this nationwide Fundreds project in the first place.

Since the late 1970s, Chinese-American artist Mel Chin has created installations-qua-social situations that straddle conceptual art and community discussion. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, Chin catalyzed events/installations/practices that may have started in the studio of the brain, but easily concatenated out into culture at large, and his work began to embrace ecological activism.

In 2006, he visited post-Katrina New Orleans, and like a number of artists, curators, activists, and other cultural workers who have invested their wide berth of expertise into various relief efforts--see also: artist/curator Kirsha Kaechele's KKProjects endeavors such as Urban Farm and the November 2008 Ritual Feast and Dan Cameron's ambitious Prospect New Orleans--Chin began to hatch the Fundred Dollar Bill Project as a nationwide way to bring awareness to and get communities involved in Operation Paydirt's efforts to remove lead from the soil of New Orleans, one of the most lead-contaminated cities in America. To raise awareness, though, he needed community-art assistance around the country to engage and involve people and provide collection points, the various stops along the money truck's snaking path around the contiguous 48.

Enter Ashby Foote and Fundreds in Baltimore. The 24-year-old southerner and graduate of the Delta State University in Cleveland, Miss., spent 2008-2009 working with Washington, D.C. schools in arts education as part of Left Noodle-Right Noodle's after-school community outreach programs. Last summer, she entered MICA's one-year Master of Arts in Community Arts program, and heard Chin talk about seeking a Baltimore-based coordinator for Fundreds. And since last September, as part of MICA's Community Arts Corps service partnership with AmeriCorps, Foote has been going into Baltimore schools and arts centers trying to get students to make $100 dollar bills.

The Fundreds project is blithely simple. Chin has come up with a paper template of the U.S. $100 banknote, only it's missing Benjamin Franklin's wily smile on the front and Independence Hall on the back. He's inviting artists--kids, community members, you--to design and decorate a $100 bill, and is then asking that it be donated to the project. He's hoping to raise 300 million in symbolic dollars to take to Congress and ask that it be matched by actual funding--$300 million, the estimated cost to remove lead from New Orleans' soil.

Thus far, Foote estimates that the Baltimore collection site has amassed more than 1,000 Fundreds. "There were no schools involved when we started," Foote says over coffee at a Mount Vernon coffeeshop. A direct and irrepressibly upbeat young woman, Foote recalls going into the community to stir up interest aided by a prop she made: a mascot-large, Styrofoam dollar bill that she could wear over her head. "I worked on going into community centers and after-school activities and presenting this project for an hour there, with a group of kids and adults. They make their Fundreds. And I've been collecting them and connecting with organizations within Baltimore who are interested in raising the awareness of lead poisoning, because that's what the project does."

Foote estimates she personally visited about 30-40 local schools and community centers, with roughly 40-50 in total getting involved. "I've gone to the Maryland Art Educators conference and had a booth, handing out packets to art teachers who then have sent them back to me," she says. "So it's kind of a multiplicity effect where I tell you and you tell five people and they tell five people and everyone gets involved.

"But one of the cool things about the Fundreds is that everyone gets validated by their contribution, and all of the Fundreds are going into the Smithsonian Hirshhorn Museum after we present them to Congress. So a lot of the times when I would tell students or people, they'd ask what we're going to do with the Fundreds and I'd say we're going to take them to Congress and they'd ask and 'Then what? Who's going to keep it? I want my piece of art back.' So I say, 'It's going into the Smithsonian. Your art is going to be in the Smithsonian.' And that's just, really, a powerful experience."

In January, Foote installed a sample selection of Baltimore Fundreds and a little workstation in the Contemporary Museum, making it a de facto Fundred production center during Participation Nation: Art Invites Input, the first part of the museum's ongoing Project 20 exhibitions commemorating the local institution's 20th anniversary.

And Foote has a busy month ahead of her. This week, she heads to San Jose, Calif., to help Chin facilitate a booth at the National Service-Learning Conference. Chin will be in Baltimore on March 31, delivering a lecture about art and social reform at MICA, before continuing on up the East Coast. He returns to Baltimore the second week of April to present at the National Art Education Association's national convention, held April 14-18 at the Baltimore Convention Center, and to pick up the local Fundreds in a celebration and parade titled "Fundred Extravaganza."

Given Baltimore's proximity to the Fundreds' ultimate Washington destination in June, though, Foote will be accepting Fundreds even after they've been picked up from the Contemporary. "I've gotten Fundreds sent to me in the mail from Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Delaware, all over the place--even though there may be other collection centers, they have the option of sending them to me," Foote says. "I get boxes in the mail. The best one, though, was an envelope I got in the mail and there was only one Fundred in it. Someone paid 42 cents to mail one Fundred. Usually there's a packet of hundreds of them--whole schools will get involved. So it's exciting, I never know what each day is going to bring."

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