Tattly Visits Materials for the Arts
In May of 2016, Materials for the Arts (MFTA) became the newest Tattly Does Good not-for-profit partner. The organization, based in Queens, is New York’s premiere reuse center. Its 35,000-square-foot warehouse is a materials haven for educators in the New York City, particularly for public school teachers. CD jewel cases, normally an after-thought and a relic of the recent digital past, now have use as mini canvases for collages and dioramas. When the Metropolitan Museum of Art digitized its archives, thousands of 35-millimeter slides were given to MFTA, which in turn commissioned five artists to create works.
Executive Director Harriet Taub and her team took Tattly through the space recently. During the visit, the warehouse was also occupied by school groups of young children, whose trip culminated in an art class on site. Tattly’s Yng-Ru Chen asked Harriet a few questions about Materials for the Arts.
Yng-Ru Chen: Harriet, tell us about Materials for the Arts and why it’s so unique in terms of it being a city organization that works with the departments of cultural affairs and sanitation and education.
Harriet Taub: I am so glad you asked that! Materials for the Arts occupies a unique space in City government. It is supported by the Departments of Cultural Affairs, Sanitation and Education as it serves all of their missions. By collecting unneeded, excess materials and giving them away for free to nonprofits and public schools and providing training and classes on how to use these non-traditional arts materials, MFTA hits all the right spots: supporting arts and culture; promoting sustainable practices and environmental sustainability, and creating access for organizations large and small. Besides these three government entities, MFTA also works with dozens of other City agencies to provide them with free materials for their programming or infrastructure. We probably have more .nyc.gov email addresses in our data base than any other City agency (except maybe Payroll Administration!). In addition, in 2002, we started our own nonprofit – Friends of Materials for the Arts. Catchy name right? We raise money through Friends in order to supplement the menu of things we can provide and that the City money will not cover. That includes all of our educational programming, our Artist in Residence and Gallery program and our extra transportation initiative which helps us hire additional trucks to pick up materials.
The 35,000-square-foot warehouse in Long Island City, Queens.
YRC: The breadth of your reach is incredible. How many teachers does the organization serve every year? How many students?
HT: Last year, MFTA reached over 17,879 students and served 3,874 teachers and school staff members through workshops, courses and on-site residencies.
YRC: And on the flip side, you have the businesses who donate the supplies. Can you give a couple of examples of the types of companies that provide the materials?
HT: We seem to occupy a niche as the go-to people when someone wants to donate almost anything. That said, we work within a network of similar organizations such as Big Reuse, which accepts building materials; The Salvation Army, Goodwill, and Housing Works which take in clothing and bedroom furniture. We often make referrals to these organizations when a donor’s items would be better placed with them. Since New York City is a fashion and design capital of the world, we take lots of fabric and trim from fashion houses, home furnishing businesses and event planners. The film and TV production industries also donate props and set pieces, paint and costumes. And regular people like you or me when they are moving, cleaning out and purging often donate the most interesting items. Photo collections, vintage patterns and buttons. Our regular donors include Marc Jacobs, Estée Lauder, and McKinsey. Besides giving items away through our warehouse operation, we have an online service for our members where we can place one small item – a laptop for example or a refrigerator or a piano. It works like Craigslist and we move tons of materials that way.
Spools of thread are organized by color in the warehouse.
YRC: What was the most unusual or surprising donation in your experience thus far?
HT: That is hard to answer as everyday there are amazing donations. Once a midtown Manhattan hotel was renovating and they donated all of their lobby palm trees! Google once donated 100 Razor Scooters and I had this idea that they might be an amazing addition for a dance piece. We sent out an e-mail to all of our dance organizations and they were soon in the hands (and feet) of dancers and choreographers across New York City.
YRC: Are there certain types of materials that you’d like more of in terms of donations? Maybe Tattly can help get the word out!
HT: Well the things our members use are pretty varied but generally everyone wants paper – large and small. They also want vibrant fabrics, trims, ribbons, buttons and beads and great technology – laptops, iPads. Household items for real use or as props and musical instruments are also in demand. Rolling office chairs and stacking chairs are also hot ticket items when we can get them.
YRC: We loved seeing some of the examples of projects made by school students using items normally headed for the trash. What is your favorite example of reuse for art? It can be at MTFA or by any artist you admire.
HT: I personally love when people take a material and transform it into something completely different, like when paper looks like steel or when metal bends like fabric. One of my favorite artists is El Antsui, a Ghanaian artist who transforms wine labels and metal soda tops into large breathtaking wall hangings. He has pieces at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Art and Design. I also love the masks that are made from repurposed file folders. They show the flexibility and ingenuity of materials that can be found all around you and repurposed into new and dynamic projects.
Bunke by Lotta Jansdotter is a Tattly design sold to benefit MFTA.
YRC: As the executive director, what is your biggest challenge in running MFTA?
HT: Money is always a challenge and I say that in the best possible way. Even with support from our City partners and our nonprofit, there are always needs that go unmet. Our work in schools has proven to be so successful but there are costs to providing two teaching artists and the schools are not always in a position to pay the full amount so we often raise funds through grants or through private dollars to support this work. The other challenge is staffing. People come and people go. Our salaries often can’t compete with the private sector so we lose quality people as they move on. However that also offers opportunity for new, energetic staff members to come on board. In the end that is just life in the work world.
YRC: Many teachers will want to know more about MFTA. How do they get access to the programs and materials?
HT: Most schools are already MFTA recipients. Teachers should speak to their principals about being added to the school’s list of authorized representatives. For any questions about the school’s account, teachers can email firstname.lastname@example.org.
YRC: Thank you so much, Harriet! We are so happy to have MFTA as a partner here at Tattly.
Bunke, a design by artist Lotta Jansdotter, is sold by Tattly to benefit Materials for the Arts. 80% of the purchase price of this Tattly is donated to help MFTA achieve its mission.
All photographs, unless otherwise specified, by Natasha Janardan for Tattly.