It’s a small miracle that Space One Eleven even exists at all. Founded in 1986, the visual arts nonprofit has weathered years of urban malaise, apathy toward contemporary art, political squabbling over arts funding and more, yet has not only survived, but enriched the cultural life of the city for 25 years in the heart of downtown Birmingham.
Throughout its nearly 30-year history, Space One Eleven has had to be creative with finding funding, and on Friday, Dec. 12, they’ll be benefiting from an especially unusual fundraiser. The Fountys, held at Bottletree and hosted by aspiring edutainment mogul Max Rykov, is a benefit to match both the creativity and the sense of playfulness that have long defined Space One Eleven.
Taking its name from Marcel Duchamp’s infamous Dadaist work Fountain — a porcelain urinal signed “R. Mutt” — the Fountys is a mock awards ceremony featuring Birmingham residents dressing up as famous works of art and taking home prizes in such categories as Most Confusing to the General Public, Most Politically Conscious and Most Poignant Portrayal of the Human Condition. If you’ve ever wanted to see one of your friends dress up like Michelangelo’s David or Caravaggio’s Medusa, here’s your chance.
“It’s like the Oscars, basically,” said Rykov, the event’s MC. “Two presenters go up, dressed in character, and present the nominees for the categories, then the winner comes up and gets their tiny gold urinal.” Many of Rykov’s edutainment-based events have been rooted in a high concept; in this case, it was, “How funny would it be for Mona Lisa to be handing a tiny urinal to Van Gogh?”, which truly is one of history’s great what-if scenarios.
Beyond the inherent comedy of a tiny golden urinal, however, there’s a real educational element to the Fountys. “It’s appropriate, because Duchamp’s Fountain is, perhaps more so than any other work of art, part of the discussion of what constitutes art,” Rykov said. It’s a discussion that Rykov, himself a layman in art history, has come to appreciate. Referring to Russian abstract artist Wassily Kandinsky, he said, “To someone who isn’t familiar with it, it just looks like a bunch of squiggles,” but Rykov has come to understand that abstract art is like “being a magician in a way, and letting people see another world.”
Providing a window into another world has been one of the critical factors in Space One Eleven’s success over the years, especially considering the nonprofit’s rocky beginnings.
“Back then, this [neighborhood] was like an urban desert,” said cofounder Peter Prinz. “A Jimmie Hale homeless shelter was on the corner, a plasma bank was next door to us — the only good thing that I can think of was that Massey’s Mercantile was still open and next to us. … When we finally made the move, all of a sudden, people were saying, ‘Northside of Birmingham? No way. You’re gonna get killed down there.’”
After losing their core of art students during the move to downtown in 1989, Prinz and fellow cofounder Anne Arrasmith saw their fortunes recover because of their connection to the neighborhood. “A bunch of kids started coming by and asking, ‘Hey, what are y’all doing?’” Prinz recalled. “And we said, ‘We’re just artists,’ and they said, ‘Well, we want to be artists too.’ And so the teaching turned to completely different demographics. And of course, it was free. We had to figure out how to get supplies, paint, paper. And we ran out of everything too quickly and had to replace it somehow.”
Despite the initial cost of making the transition from teaching affluent Over the Mountain children to teaching kids from Metropolitan Gardens — housing projects that were, in the 1990s, located in one of the very poorest ZIP codes in the country — Space One Eleven’s relationship with inner city kids paid enormous dividends.
Culture wars led by Pat Buchanan, Newt Gingrich and Jesse Helms in the early ‘90s decisively changed the direction of funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, one of Space One Eleven’s most important sources of grant money. As the NEA shifted its focus toward subsidizing arts education, Space One Eleven had to adapt, growing its educational programs for neighborhood kids organically.
More than a marriage of convenience, however, Space One Eleven’s educational programming was a home away from home for many of the kids. In collaboration with the Center for Urban Mission, 13 kids became Citizen Artists who worked at Space One Eleven every summer for five to seven years. One of those artists, Derrick Franklin, has since gone on to become an architect, and now sits on Space One Eleven’s board of directors.
“There a lot of kids like that who, years later, we find out what it meant for them to be in this program, or having an artist talk to them, or just seeing someone being able to create and thinking, ‘Hey, I can do that too,’” Prinz said.
Space One Eleven’s roots in the neighborhood allowed it to tackle its most ambitious project to date, which was the five-year, $500,000 Urban Mural project, replacing the decrepit east wall of Boutwell Auditorium with a picture of a dragon. Consisting of 28,000 tiles made of Alabama clay and weighing 112 tons, the project not only relied on the work of local kids — not to mention their parents, some of whom learned artistic skills they’d never had an opportunity to discover while also being paid for their work — but also their imagination.
“We talked about [Dutch artist Piet] Mondrian, trying to tie in a lot of art history into this thing, and the kids didn’t like that,” Prinz said. “What you see now is drawn from Chinese mythology, I guess — ‘Before you slay a dragon, make it beautiful.’ It was about Birmingham and the ugly past it has had, to put something beautiful up there to celebrate the great things. Bricks can be bad when they’re thrown, but bricks can be positive when you build something with them.”
Birmingham is still a source of inspiration for Prinz, who originally hails from Germany. “We’re always trying to use the industrial heritage, as well as the civil rights heritage, of Birmingham in our educational programming, as well as our exhibitions’ themes, talking about some of those issues.”
Despite the nonprofit’s connection to downtown and its adaptation to shifting policies, Prinz says that Space One Eleven’s core identity has never changed: “We didn’t reinvent ourselves. We always were a visual arts organization and we always exhibited quality art — we want to keep that bar high.”
That touches on another faintly miraculous quality about Space One Eleven’s survival in the Deep South: its commitment to progressive-minded, politically oriented programming. The art shown at Space One Eleven reliably takes aim at targets like racism, xenophobia, misogyny and homophobia — not to incite controversy, Prinz says, but to address contemporary issues. On one occasion, an outré exhibition by artist Larry Anderson in support of gay rights even drew a warning from the FBI to take the show down, lest Space One Eleven become a target for extremists like Eric Rudolph.
Despite Space One Eleven’s long, unlikely history in Birmingham, Prinz says that the nonprofit still has inroads to make into the community, which in many ways seems to be catching up to the forward-thinking example set by the nonprofit. In addition to raising money, there are hopes that the Fountys will also raise more awareness about what Prinz calls “the best-kept secret in Birmingham.”
Like Space One Eleven itself, the Fountys will be an easygoing introduction into the world of art. “This is for a very sophisticated crowd. You have to have at least a master’s to get into it,” Rykov joked. “The point of it is, it’s a fun way to actually educate people about art and art history. … When you think of an art museum, it has a certain rigid feel to it. Some people might be intimidated by it. And this is a very un-intimidating environment.”
For an organization dedicated to removing walls between people, nothing could be more appropriate.
The Fountys will take place at Bottletree Café on Dec. 12 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $12 in advance, $15 at the door.