Creativity
This Organization Is Giving Free Art Materials to Thousands of NYC Schools and Nonprofits
Courtesy of Materials for the Arts.

Courtesy of Materials for the Arts.

It was 2015, and the hit off-Broadway show Grounded, starring Anne Hathaway, had just closed, leaving hundreds of pounds of sand that had covered the stage without a home—or so you might think.

While the trappings of defunct sets, like that of Grounded, often end up in trash bins, this sand had a different fate. It was heading to Materials for the Arts (MFTA), an arm of New York City’s Department of Cultural Affairs that keeps discarded materials from entering landfills, and instead makes them available to creative organizations and public schools around the city, for free.

Several months after the sand landed at MFTA’s headquarters, in Long Island City, Queens, it was reincarnated in an NYC classroom, as the foundation for a new community garden.

“That sand had a very rich life,” Kwame Belle, MFTA’s communications coordinator, tells me as we walk through the organization’s 35,000-square-foot warehouse, which hosts materials ranging from sand to slop sinks, from cans of paint to spools of Pantone fabric. “It went from Anne Hathaway rolling around in it onstage, to a bunch of third graders pouring it out into their community garden,” Belle continues. “That’s the kind of full-circle moment we’re trying to create here: culture reused as more culture.”

Photo by Laura Fuchs. Courtesy of Materials for the Arts.

Photo by Laura Fuchs. Courtesy of Materials for the Arts.

MFTA has been facilitating these full-circle moments, or what they refer to as “creative reuse,” since 1978, when a young artist named Angela Fremont, who was working in the Department of Cultural Affairs’s Central Park office, got wind that the park’s zoo needed a refrigerator to store medicine for their animals. In an era before Craigslist, she took the zoo’s request to a local radio show. Minutes after her appeal was broadcasted, calls offering working refrigerators flooded the phone line in her office—and she realized this model could be applied and adapted to support other organizations, too.

MFTA was born soon after, as a nonprofit with a mission to provide free materials to creative non-profits in New York City, and bolster the city’s recycling efforts in the process. Funded primarily by the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs, with support from the New York Department of Sanitation, the organization began by canvassing businesses and individuals across the five boroughs for discarded materials. These spoils were collected from donors, then housed and organized in MFTA’s first headquarters at Chelsea Market on the West Side of Manhattan. There, arts professionals and artists working with nonprofits like museums, theaters, exhibition spaces, music venues, and schools, “shopped” for fodder they would use to build their future projects.

Today, MFTA refers to these recipients as their “member organizations,” which are approved for “shopping” through an online application process. They must be confirmed as either a nonprofit arts or cultural group with at least two years of arts programming; individuals and projects sponsored by nonprofit organizations that also meet the two-year requirement; or New York City, State, or Federal agencies. All NYC Public Schools are pre-registered.

“People came and still come to Materials for the Arts for what is often the most important element of their project: their materials,” Belle explains. “And they leave with those materials and a surplus on their budget, because they didn’t have to pay a thing for them.”

Courtesy of Materials for the Arts.

Courtesy of Materials for the Arts.

Courtesy of Materials for the Arts.

Courtesy of Materials for the Arts.

Since its humble beginnings almost 40 years ago, MFTA has grown exponentially—in terms of its physical size and its impact on both New York’s creative community and the city’s sanitation operations. Last year alone, the organization provided free materials to 2,218 creative non-profits and public schools and diverted 1.9 million pounds of reusable goods from landfills. This year, they hope to break 2 million.

MFTA’s massive Long Island City premises is located just down the road from MoMA PS1 and SculptureCenter. The building houses a 25,000-square-foot hall stacked floor-to-ceiling with materials, and another 10,000 square feet devoted to offices, two classrooms, and a gallery.

The hall itself resembles a hybrid of the home improvement behemoth Home Depot and the traditional art supply go-to Blick. Shopping carts stacked at the entrance make way for a room so long, it appears to go on farther than the eye can see. This is where the artists, designers, teachers, and other professionals affiliated with MFTA’s partner nonprofits begin their hunt.

During my visit to the space, Belle and I begin our tour by walking through the paper section, which is chock full of donated books, note cards, and even several shelves loaded with artwork reproductions—like Kazimir Malevich’s Peasant Woman with Buckets and Child (1912) and Morris Louis’s Delta Ro (1960)—donated by Pace Prints.

Next, we pass through a section of old posters, printed on one side with colorful images. “We like to remind people who come to MFTA that they can also use the backs of the posters as blank paper,” Belle notes. “That’s what creative reuse is: taking an existing object and turning it into something new.” MFTA recycles these posters for their own use, too. “When you get a thank you note or invitation from us, say to our annual gala, you’ll turn it over a see that we’ve reused the paper. It’s another small way we communicate our mission,” he continues.  

Courtesy of Materials for the Arts.

Courtesy of Materials for the Arts.

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.”

Courtesy of Materials for the Arts.

Courtesy of Materials for the Arts.

In 2012, MFTA also introduced an artist residency within its warehouse. The day I visit, Brooklyn-based artist Sol’Sax is in the middle of his three-month residency, and working in a dedicated studio at MFTA. The space is bright, bordered on one side by big windows, and filled with materials—instrument cases, surfboards, painting palettes, Martin Luther King, Jr. figures, among them—that Sax mined from MFTA’s warehouse to create sculptures.

“The commercial world sees so many things as worthless—so many things become trash because they become ‘unsellable,’” Sax tells me. “As an artist, we look at those things and we see their value—and we can redeem it through our creativity. Materials for the Arts is an organization that helps redeem the value of so much of what comes out of New York City.”

Across his studio, he’s turned a trio of black instrument cases into a freestanding, sculptural body. Two traditional painter’s palettes have been turned upside down and decorated with cans for eyes; they now resemble African masks. Two discarded surfboards stand to the side, waiting to be altered; Sax plans to transform them into vessels that nod to “African cultural heritage, and the respect that African cultures had for the ocean and the way they thought about the ocean being alive,” he explains.

Come December, Sax will unveil his recent work in a solo show at MFTA’s new gallery. In 2010, Kaiser saw an opportunity to turn the hallway that leads from the elevator to the warehouse into a exhibition space—another example of MFTA embracing its mission of creative reuse.

“The idea for the gallery was twofold,” Kaiser explains. “One, to shine a light on artists and educators who are using reused materials in interesting and new ways. And two, to use this space to get people who pass through it excited about making art themselves.”

As we pass through the gallery, I explain to Kaiser, Belle, Sax, and Taub that it worked: I haven’t made art since high school, and I was suddenly itching to create. “That’s really the whole point of what we do,” says Taub. “To remind people that there is some artistic bone in everybody’s body.”

Alexxa Gotthardt is a Staff Writer at Artsy.