Essential Info: Materials for the Arts

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On April 19th, Open House New York visited Materials for the Arts’ (MFTA) warehouse in Long Island City. MFTA, a program of New York City Department of Cultural Affairs (DCLA), began in 1978 in the Central Park Arsenal with one employee, one desk, and one phone. Since then, it has had an impressive roster of addresses, from a pre-renovation 2 Columbus Circle to the 3rd floor in the Chelsea Market. In 2001, MFTA moved to its current (and largest) location, a 35,000-square-foot warehouse space. Over the years, the program has expanded into a multi-agency effort: still housed within DCLA, MFTA also receives funding from the NYC Department of Sanitation (DSNY), and has a formal partnership with the NYC Department of Education (DOE) that allows teachers access to MFTA materials to support arts education in public schools. MFTA has thousands of member organizations across all five boroughs of New York City (1,904 public schools or school programs, 401 city agencies, 1,430 non-profit arts organizations, and 689 other non-profits) that range from the Village Halloween Parade and the Nuyorican Poets Café to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Today MFTA is considered one of the largest creative reuse centers in the United States, and is certainly the largest municipally funded reuse center, regarded as a model by many nationwide.

Connection: MFTA supports the city’s arts and cultural community while simultaneously diverting more than a million pounds of materials from landfills each year. Companies, organizations, and individuals donate everything from unused paper and fabric to furniture. While donations are tax deductible, MFTA relies, to a large extent, upon generosity, since it’s often easier to simply throw something away than to donate it. As a result, the model is centered on connecting the people who benefit from donated materials to the people who drop them off. Members can visit the warehouse as often as they like to pick up free supplies, whether that means furnishing a non-profit office with donated desks and chairs, finding unexpected materials for a new sculpture, or loading up on paper and markers for an art class. The only thing that MFTA asks in return is for members to write letters to the people whose donations they claimed, thanking them and telling them how the materials were reused. “Our only currency is gratitude,” says MFTA’s Hallie Bahn.

Re-Framing: “Years ago, when we were at another location, I heard someone visiting the warehouse refer to the materials as ‘a bunch of junk,’” recalls Harriet Taub, who joined MFTA in 1998 and now serves as the executive director. That experience has inspired Harriet and her team to invest a great deal of time and effort into making the warehouse space clean, inviting, and well-organized. “We set it up like Costco,” she explains, “because we want people to understand that these things have value; they’re not just somebody’s leftovers.”

Education: While the reuse value of office furniture, musical instruments, and many other objects is often obvious, there are plenty of materials that are donated to MFTA that require some imagination in order to find new life—what the organization terms “nontraditional” materials. MFTA, through its nonprofit partner, Friends of the Materials for the Arts, organizes a host of educational programs aimed at teaching everyone from students to crafty locals how to make new and unexpected things out of discarded goods, from jewelry to sculpture. The organization aims to inspire people to think creatively when considering how a given object might be “upcycled.” The warehouse also features a studio that plays host to MFTA’s Artist-in-Residence program, as well as a public gallery where artworks made from reusable materials are exhibited. The warehouse is not merely a clearinghouse for objects looking for new life; it is a public platform for building awareness around the importance of reuse.

Specialization: While it is one of the largest, MFTA is part of a constellation of reuse centers across the city, each of which tends to specialize in different types of materials. As an organization working to support the city’s arts and cultural sector, for instance, MFTA typically does not take in donations of clothing, as it needs to make room for goods that will be of more immediate use to other non-profits and educators, rather than individuals. As Harriet explains, “There are other people who do it better than us.” To ensure that materials have the best chance of finding new owners, MFTA will often coordinate with other local reuse centers to help re-route donations. “We’ll take things that we can’t use and give them to Big Reuse, the Salvation Army, etc.”

Space: It has found its largest home yet in Long Island City, but MFTA’s future growth is as challenged by space constraints as any other organization in a city where space is at a premium. “The only way that we’re going to grow this program now is virtually,” according to Harriet, and MFTA is increasingly looking to the internet to help route donations directly to new users. Still, she sees a silver lining in the high cost of physical space in the five boroughs: it incentivizes people to get rid of materials that they might otherwise let sit around. “If you’ve got a printer that has a bunch of paper left over from a job that they aren’t going to use, that paper is just taking up space. This is New York City—that’s rent!” The trick, in the future, will be to find ways to use technology to capture a larger percentage of the goods that are thrown away each year, without ever having them pass through the warehouse.


Photos: Ben Helmer for OHNY