MFTA staff has scattered similar nods to the creative possibilities of reuse across the warehouse. In front of a section devoted to novelty items—like puzzles, plastic flamingoes, and even one gold trash can printed with the United States Senate logo—we see a DIY solar system model. It was made by one of the school groups that visit MFTA for field trips, from discarded Christmas decorations. Fashioned in one of MFTA’s on-site classrooms, its planets were made from glass ornaments of different sizes that had been wrapped in yarn and coated with glitter. A string of twinkle lights became the stars that surrounded the celestial globes.
These school field trips speak to the organization’s wider commitment to education, spearheaded by longtime director Harriet Taub over the past two decades. (Taub went to art school for ceramics, and also has degree in arts education.) The effort was launched in 1997, when the New York City Department of Education’s Project ARTS agreed to provide a portion of funding to MFTA to allow art teachers access to the facility.
Taub and other members of MFTA’s staff quickly recognized a disconnect, though, between the found materials they provided, and what public school teachers expected to find at the warehouse. “They kept asking, ‘Where are the watercolors?’” Taub recounts. “I said, ‘You have to think outside the box! You have to figure this out!’” she continues with enthusiasm. A year later, in response, she and artist Joy Suarez began to offer workshops to teachers and other arts professionals on how to use nontraditional and found materials in school projects.
Since then, MFTA has added two classrooms to their headquarters, where they work with public school students, teachers of all stripes, and a range of other groups including people with disabilities. One class, cleverly titled “Paper: From Pulp to Fiction,” teaches students to make substrates, utensils, and pigments from scratch: “Ink from blueberries, a pen made from a bamboo shoot, a block print from a piece of discarded tile or the bottom of your sneaker,” Belle explains.
MFTA sends trained artists into public schools around New York, too. Guided by John Cloud Kaiser, MFTA director of education, the program arranges in-school workshops that “model creative reuse and project-based learning for students and staff,” MFTA’s website describes. These are attended not only by art teachers, but also by educators of other disciplines like social studies, math, and science.
Kaiser, who joins us for part of the tour, notes that a correlation between this program and increased test scores has been recorded in some of the public schools where it’s been implemented. “Last year, one of our pilot schools, P.S. 5 in Brooklyn, had the biggest increase in test scores of any school in New York City,” Kaiser notes. “We’ve been studying it and we’ve seen the impact MFTA had on that.”