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Artist Mel Chin Comes to Clean Up Omaha

An audacious plan to use art to fight lead contamination
Mel Chin speaking in Omaha
Published on March 21, 2010 : 2 comments

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In the gilded auditorium of the Omaha Public Schools Teacher Administration Center (3215 Cuming Street), Mel Chin’s words ricocheted off the walls like tiny bullets made of lead: “Omaha is one of the worst places I know about.”

But the conceptual artist and founder of the Fundred Dollar Bill Project did not come thousands of miles to insult the people of Omaha. He came to help them.

Something bad happened, and you have to do some good”

In 2006, Chin traveled to a post-Katrina New Orleans. Standing in the shell of the once great city, he came away convinced that treating lead contaminated soil, the main contributor in an epidemic that poisoned over 30% of New Orleans’ inner city youth, was as vital to the rehabilitation effort as road reconstruction or levee repair.

It’s been proven that high lead levels in children can be directly linked to lower test scores, and they are a predictor of future violent behavior. But how to treat the soil of one of the most heavily contaminated urban areas in the country? How to use New Orleans as the model for a problem that affects nearly every major metropolis? And how to pay for it?

Chin conceived of Operation Paydirt as a means of catalyzing change. He didn’t need to invent a new approach to lead treatment: the science to neutralize hazardous lead through Phosphate Induced Metal Stabilization was already successfully being used in military and industrial applications, and the TLC approach (Treat-Cover-Lock) Chin advocates was already backed by leading researchers.

Yet, New Orleans and hundreds of cities around the country remain contaminated. Omaha is one of the largest Superfund sites in the nation, with more than 10,000 untreated homes experiencing toxic lead levels. Clearly, there is still work to be done.

The Fundred Dollar Bill Project

In “no more than 45 seconds,” Chin envisioned the basic concept of the Fundred Dollar Bill Project, which he would use to fund Operation Paydirt: engage the communities affected by lead contamination; empower the people, the children, most affected by lead; travel the country collecting three million Fundred dollar bills, each representing $100 of congressional funding, and deliver them to Washington for a symbolic 1:1 exchange worth $300 million of spending promises.

The Fundred Project SafehouseThe Fundred Project SafehouseIt’s an audacious plan, and after years of work, Chin is seeing it near fruition. He’s visited cities across the country, collecting millions of Fundreds, tiny works of art the size of a US $100 bill, but designed as a blank canvas to be drawn upon by the collective imagination of a nation.

He set up the Safehouse, Operation Paydirt’s New Orleans headquarters, complete with a 10-foot wide functional vault door and a combo lock to protect the Fundreds. Over 6,000 are on display there, creating a work of art out of a home heavily damaged by Katrina.

Finally, he plans to deliver to the Fundreds to Washington this spring, requesting that Congress earmark real money in exchange for the Fundreds. 

I am no longer the artist”

It has not been easy.

The Fundred team is trying to run a national campaign with only three full-time staff. On the way to Omaha, the armored truck that crisscrosses the country picking up and protecting the Fundred dollar bills broke down before its intended stop at Daniel J. Gross High School (7700 South 43rd Street, Bellevue). There was a problem with the newly installed unit that converts vegetable oil collected from school cafeterias into fuel.

There is a certain symmetry in using vegetable oil to power the truck to the next school, where it will pick up more fuel, more Fundreds, more momentum. This poetry is intentional, part of Chin’s desire to transfer ownership of the Project from the artist to those communities affected by lead contamination.

The truck problems will surely be solved soon. After all, that’s what Chin does. He identifies problems and finds ways to engage people in solving them. Take the thousands of “top secret operatives” he refers to—elementary and high school students—or the way he has turned small art foundation grants into the possibility for big change.

And unlike the broken truck, Chin’s momentum is not so easily halted. 

From New Orleans to Omaha and Beyond

On Friday, March 19th, Chin delivered a wide ranging talk at the Teacher Administration Center, tracing the arc of a career that has seen his work exhibited in the world’s most prestigious museums, from New York’s Museum of Modern Art to LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art, Cuba to Korea, and beyond.

Thankfully, his success has not rendered him unapproachable, and the relaxed banter he shared with the audience fit the message inherent in his art: grassroots change is possible.

Mel Chin speaking in OmahaMel Chin speaking in OmahaChin spoke for over 90 minutes to the rapt audience, drawing on a vocabulary culled as much from hip hop as his Houston roots, with just a dash of drawl from his current North Carolina home. Beginning with a tongue-in-cheek rendition of Elvis’ Suspicious Minds, his affability belied the seriousness of the subject matter he tackles (gun violence, O-zone depletion, and yes, lead contamination).

Any doubts about his commitment to the Fundred Project were erased when he began fielding questions from the audience. Chin shifted focus from the philosophy of art to the realities of science with facile ease, citing complex chemical compounds and EPA reports as easily as the children of Daniel Gross might recite the lyrics to a Lady Gaga song (whom he also referenced).

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Chin satisfied queries from the Omaha Healthy Kids Alliance, an Omaha-based non-profit that deals specifically with lead poisoning awareness, and followed the lecture with a community workshop on Saturday, allowing for more interaction and education. Mayor Suttle attended the workshop, underscoring that this is a public art project with a political edge.

It’s not about politics, though, it’s about helping the people affected by lead poisoning. If Chin hoped to impart anything about the Fundred Dollar Bill Project, it seemed to be the belief that we are all a part of it.

Despite the fact that it is his genius that created it, his reputation that will guide the three million Fundreds directly into the Smithsonian’s collection upon their arrival in Washington, and ultimately his passion that makes the idea of a 300 million dollar Congressionally funded clean up seem feasible, it is no longer his project. He’s just, as he puts it, the “delivery dude.”

It is now those 1,300 students at Daniel Gross’ project. It is St. Louis’ project. It is Chicago’s project. It is Omaha’s project. It is my project. And it is your project.

It is a rare thing: it is art with the power to make change.

Click here to print out your own Fundred or order a pre-printed shipment for your school.
Click here to obtain lesson plans and materials for your classroom.

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jordyAn writer since 2008, Jordy freely admits he's waiting for his golden parachute "anxiously." He microblogs @jordyclements + macroblogs


Finch93 says:

March 30, 2010 : 14 years 16 weeks ago

Finch93's picture

Great article Jordy! The reason we became involved in container gardening is our home is on the edge of the Superfund site. So we have followed the related issues closely, and I am so excited to hear about Mel Chin’s project and will be interested to see what comes of it! Thank you Mr. Chin for helping take care of Omaha!

jordy says:

March 30, 2010 : 14 years 16 weeks ago

jordy's picture

I think many people in Omaha would be surprised at just how great a problem lead contamination is in this city. Yet, those who are affected by it are forced into being experts. It’s an interesting dichotomy.

What’s great about Mel Chin’s work is that he approached the problem not only as an artist, but as a human: “how can I, as a citizen, help?” This is the kind of thinking that will spread solutions from New Orleans to Omaha and beyond.