Photo via @materialsforthearts.
Harriet Taub, the organization’s Executive Director, to talk about their social causes, the programs at the core of MFTA, and their impact on the environment.
“I’m proud to say that on average Materials for the Arts diverts 1.5 million pounds of materials from landfill each year.”
Harriet Taub, Material for the Arts’ Executive Director
MFTA is a program of the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs which provides donated materials to arts and cultural nonprofits, NYC public schools, and City agencies. Taub and her staff of 18, along with teams of volunteers, collect and redistribute approximately 1.5 million pounds of materials each year that would otherwise be discarded to landfills. Over time, MFTA has become a cornerstone for the 4,200+ member organizations it supports. The organization is based in Long Island City and you can watch their videos at https://www.nyxt.nyc/mtfa/.
How did you get started with MFTA?
I came to work at MFTA in 1998 as the Education Coordinator, when the program had just started a partnership with the Dept of Education’s Arts office to provide art, drama and music teachers with access to free materials. My role was to connect with these teachers and get them registered in our system. It was mostly administrative. Early on I realized that many of the teachers were looking for traditional art materials which we didn’t always have. I began to offer workshops on how to use the ‘nontraditional’ materials that filled MFTA’s Chelsea warehouse. In a few short years, we moved to Long Island City and I became the Director. Creating the Education Center with help from Joy Suarez was an important piece of enhancing MFTA’s mission. Over the next 20 years, we grew the program to where it is today. Our Director of Education for the past ten years, John Cloud Kaiser has been a strong partner in making MFTA a leader in creative reuse, not just locally but nationally and internationally.
How did the organization come to exist?
Materials for the Arts was started in 1978 when Angela Fremont, an artist was hired through CETA, the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, a program created to train workers for jobs in public service. An offshoot of that was the CETA/Neighborhood Arts Program which employed painters, muralists, musicians, performing artists, poets and gardeners to work in schools, community centers, prisons and wherever their skills and services were of value to the community. Angela was placed with the newly formed NYC Dept of Cultural Affairs and her office was at the Arsenal, the Parks Department headquarters. While there she heard that the Central Park Zoo needed a refrigerator to house the medicines for its animals. She called a friend who worked at a local radio station to do an on air call out for a refrigerator. The phone lines lit up and the idea for MFTA was born. People who had things and no longer wanted them could donate to arts organizations and non-profits that needed them. A win-win.
Photo via @materialsforthearts.
What societal problems is MFTA trying to solve?
Well at MFTA we feel we help solve a few problems. One is that we help keep valuable items from going into the landfill. We try to break the cycle of buy, use and dump. Reuse is a very important part of creating a more sustainable environment. Second is that we provide free materials to nonprofits throughout NYC for their arts programming. We are also the largest provider of free materials to the NYC public schools. Keeping arts education and arts programming going is an important part of our mission, especially when budgets are slashed, and materials are hard to obtain. The third is that we have a robust education program which educates both students and teachers and members of the general public about the importance of reuse, in their classrooms, homes and communities.
What are the main programs at the core of MFTA?
We collect materials from businesses and individuals throughout the NYC metro area.
We give them away, for free, to our members—nonprofits with arts programming, NYC public schools and other City agencies.
We educate the public on how to reuse materials and integrate them into their curriculum, programs and general lifestyle.
We have an Artist-in-Residence program, offering an artist who incorporates reuse into their artistic practice a studio, access to all of our materials and a gallery show upon completion of their residency.
We have a year-round field trip program where we bring in students for a tour of our warehouse, artist’s studio, Gallery and a hands-on art making experience in our classrooms.
We have a monthly Third Thursday open studio, (which has now pivoted to an online session), with a member of the broader arts community - an artist, architect or thought leader to lead a discussion or a hands-on project with the general public.
We also offer year-round Professional Development courses to help train educators on reuse practices.
What is the organization’s contribution to social justice and education causes?
All of the above. We work with hundreds of grassroot, local organizations that rely upon our free materials to serve their constituents and create their programs. If they do not have to pay for materials, they can put their money into staffing and rent! Many small groups and their creative staff members throughout the five boroughs have gotten their start by utilizing MFTA’s materials and services.
Harriet Taub, Material for the Arts’ Executive Director.
Harriet began working for Materials for the Arts in 1998 to support public school teachers in maximizing their visits to MFTA. In her position, she found ways to encourage teachers to think outside the box and incorporate nontraditional materials into their classroom projects. Due to her undying passion for reuse and natural leadership skills, Taub was hired as the Executive Director just two years after joining MFTA.
Today Harriet oversees MFTA’s 35,000 square foot reuse facility in Long Island City, which includes the warehouse, classrooms, art gallery, and Artist-in-Residence studio. In 2017, Taub was honored with the Sloan Award, which annually recognizes six outstanding civil servants whose work and commitment to the public transcends the ordinary. As the Executive Director since 2000, Taub’s enthusiasm and dedication to connecting “those who have” with “those who need” has made her an exceptional leader.
Your work has a positive result on the environment. Could you share some achievements and information about your impact?
I’m proud to say that on average Materials for the Arts diverts 1.5 million pounds of materials from landfill each year. The energy saved through recovering the materials we collected last year is equivalent to 2.2 million pounds of coal burned. Our work at MFTA is not only important because it allows people to engage in reuse, but also because we work to inspire people to see how they can be innovative and resourceful outside of MFTA too.
Also, this past Earth Day, I was honored to be one of thirty individuals named a NYC Climate Hero by the Human Impacts Institute and the NYC Dept of Transportation Art. The initiative celebrates the diversity, innovation, and creativity of New Yorkers leading climate action. I may have received the award, but I know it was due the hard work of all of us at MFTA. We all work together to create a cleaner and greener future.
Photo via @materialsforthearts.
How were the organization and your community affected by the coronavirus pandemic? What’s your plan for this second half of the year?
Well, we had to shut down our operation in mid-March. Then while closed, we worked to see if we could get materials for PPE to our member groups that were requesting fabric and elastic for mask making. Our Deputy Director, Tara Sansone, worked tirelessly to make that happen over April and May. In addition, we were able to help outfit a few of the public hospitals as they scrambled to create break and mourning rooms at their sites. Either through materials and furniture that we had on hand or through our online service, Direct Donations, our donations team successfully made matches of items with members in need.
We are awaiting word from City Hall and our Commissioner at the NYC Dept of Cultural Affairs on when we can bring our staff members back into the warehouse. Our model may have to change over the next few months to accommodate for social distancing, etc. but everyone at MFTA is committed to serving our members in whatever way is needed and very anxious to get back to work.
Do you collaborate with other nonprofits or agencies?
Yes. We have over 4100 member organizations – arts nonprofits, social and community service nonprofits, city agencies and public schools and colleges. We are the engine that helps run NYC’s small arts nonprofits. We are behind the scenes but are an essential part of what makes NYC’s arts community operate. From the Public Theater in Manhattan to Calpulli Mexican Dance Company in Corona, from St. Mary’s Rec Center in the Bronx (NYC Dept of Parks & Recreation) to Coney Island USA in Brooklyn and the Park Rangers in Staten Island, MFTA is a vital resource to our members.
If people want to donate materials to MFTA, what's the best way to do it?
Right now as we are still officially closed, the best way is to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and begin the conversation. Our team monitors that inbox and tries to come up with creative solutions to serve both donors and our members.
Would you like to add anything additional?
Yes. Since 2002, we have worked as a public private partnership with our nonprofit Friends of Materials for the Arts. It is a unique collaboration that has benefited our members and the public. Together we can do more and provide more than either entity could do on their own. When government and the private sector combine their resources – people and monies – the result is a stronger, more nimble, and resilient MFTA.
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