LONG ISLAND CITY, Queens- “We are the best kept secret in New York City!” A community for the creative, from buttons and fabric to wood and musical instruments, this place has it. And lots of it. “This is Materials for the Arts,” Harriet Taub, executive director, said. “We’ve got 35,000 square feet of warehouse space in Long Island City.” It’s sort of a Disneyland for design, arts and crafts. “This place is filled with everything and anything,” she described.
They’re literally taking trash and turning it into treasure. In 2016, 1.9 million pounds of materials, valued at $10 million, were diverted from the landfill. “What we’re trying to do is keep it out of the garbage, keep it out of the landfill and put it into the hands of people who are creative so they can repurpose it,” she explained. In doing so, it has become the single largest supplier of art supplies to NYC public schools. The best part, every item, is free. “How much money you think you’re saving doing this?” I asked Lisa Wedderburn, a science teacher at the Brooklyn East Alternate Learning Center. “Hundreds of dollars,” she said. “[Over the year] thousands!”
It works just like a typical trip to the store: you go shopping, grab what you need and mark it down. The system may seem simple, but it’s highly sophisticated; every scrap, categorized and organized. “One of the things they’re asked to do is send thank you letters to the people who made the donations and we give them that information,” Taub said. The warehouse is operated by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs with additional support from the City’s Departments of Sanitation and of Education. MFTA started in 1978 and has kept growing, serving not only teachers but arts nonprofits citywide.
“I work at a program with senior citizens and right now we’re doing crochet with beads,” Wilhelmina Grant, a teaching artist, described. “So I found lots of boxes of these bead kits.” Materials for the Arts relies solely on donations from the the city, from businesses and from people like you and me. “These kinds of materials in many case are materials that can be found in their own homes, their own neighborhoods, and so we want them to be inspired by these materials,” Taub explained.
A mission they not only preach but teach. “We also have a whole force of teaching artists we send into schools and we do residencies in schools and we also have a free school trip program,” she added. And for many educators, this place is their only hope in giving their students a much-needed creative outlet. “A lot of it we wouldn’t be able to do because the teachers would have to take it out of their pocket to buy all these supplies,”Wedderburn said. “So no warehouse, no programs for you and the kids?” I clarified. “Exactly,” she nodded.
Produced by: Kim Pestalozzi