How a material for art rescues New York’s discarded objects

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a strong wind is blowing The 35,000-square-foot home of Materials for the Arts is as close as you can get to visiting Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. Earlier this year, the huge warehouse in Queens was filled with Christmas goods, such as ornaments, pink artificial evergreens and lush soap boxes, as well as paper and books, envelopes, archival photographs, all kinds of clothes, buttons, Perennial corrugation of beads, and trim. There are also lab coats from hospitals, furniture from the Javits Center, and old typewriters and PC towers, CDs and file folders. The list goes on, filled with the complexities of contemporary New York City life just waiting to be pulled out of obscurity. Most of these items are in pristine condition, and they are all carefully organized and labeled.

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It is available free to public school students and teachers, as well as arts nonprofits.

As New York’s largest creative-reuse center and a program of the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs, Materials for the Arts collects an unlimited array of reusable materials from businesses and individuals that are then donated to nonprofits, Provided to schools and other city agencies. Diversion of approximately 1.7 million pounds of material from landfills in 2023.

That 1.7 million pounds is nearly quadruple the amount of material donated just three years ago, and today the nearly 50-year-old organization is poised to expand as it continues to evolve to meet changing needs. A city rich in resources but always short of resources.

“This isn’t just about our organization – it’s about our city,” said Tara Sansone, executive director of the MFTA. ARTnews, “As New York grows, so must our programming because our mission is core to the essence of New York.”

In January, bolstered by a $50,000 corporate grant from Southwest Airlines and Sony Corporation of America, MFTA launched an awareness campaign to reinforce its ethos and, ultimately, to bring in more buyers as the organization brings them to its doors. Through, calls through artist and designer residencies. , field-trip and volunteer programs, and numerous educational and public programs that serve more than 6,000 students and 1,000 teachers per year. (It also unveiled a rebrand alongside it, courtesy of esteemed design firm Pentagram New taxicab-yellow identity Scattered across Times Square.)

The American Eagle Outfitters screen in Times Square lit up with its new logo and text for Materials for the Art and was billed as 'New York City's hub for creative reuse.'

Materials for the Arts celebrated its rebrand in February by taking over the Times Square screen of the organization’s supporter, American Eagle Outfitters.

Photo Anna Drody

The organization’s future, in many ways, is a far cry from its rough beginnings. In 1978, Angela Fremont, an enterprising young artist working in the Department of Cultural Affairs, learned that the Central Park Zoo urgently needed a refrigerator to store animal medications. She appealed to a local radio show for help and, after an on-air request, immediately received a flood of responses – inspiring her to apply the same principle of one man’s trash being another’s treasure more widely. Did.

A smiling white woman holds a yellow card with a logo.

MFT founder Angela Fremont attends the rebrand launch in Times Square.

Photo Anna Drody

“I became interested in the amount of waste produced in the city,” Frémont said. new York Times In 1981, “And they knew it could be used by artists, who often lacked the money for the materials they needed.”

The first donation the Fremont received to become materials for the art was 50 glass exhibition cases from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which continues to gift materials to the MFTA to this day, such as a large repository of recently digitized slides. In the years since, it has extended membership through an application process to local nonprofit groups with at least two years of arts programming, in addition to public schools and government agencies.

While some items are always in stock (paper, chairs, candles, and fashion-industry supplies like zippers, thread, sewing machines and dress forms), “It’s the unique things that make it really interesting,” Sansone said. . “We never know what we’ll find.”

Last year, after the closure of Broadway’s longest-running show, the MFT received donations of costumes and set pieces. the Phantom of the Opera, On the day we spoke, an anonymous donor had donated 20 impeccable banquettes prepared specifically for an event; Sansone was already going through his mental Rolodex of arts organizations that could benefit.

A woman is looking at clothes on a silver rack in a warehouse.

A shopper rummages through racks of donated clothing in an MFTA warehouse.

Photo Anthony Sertel Dean

MFTA has seen steady, rapid growth, Sansone said, partly because of the corporate trend toward sustainability. Luxury brands like Coach have handed over raw materials like discarded leather, while Kate Spade donated pallets of handbags and Burberry once gave away eight-foot-tall animal sculptures from its West Palm Beach store — just to name a few. found a house At the Staten Island Zoo.

In 2022, as cultural organizations were still recovering, a single donation 11,000 dance shoesFrom tap to ballet footwear, it inspired Sansone to launch the Great Dance Shoe Giveaway, where dancers of all ages had to stop by the warehouse to get a new pair. “The teachers here were crying because they said most of their students had never worn a dance shoe on their feet,” he recalled.

Recently, MFTA has expanded its recycling efforts to include the city’s film and TV industry, and added two staff positions focused on sourcing these materials. costumes from wonderful mrs maisel, gossip GirlAnd Only murders in the building It’s one of more than a million pounds of material the agency has received from New York-filmed productions since 2019. a suit to wear inheritance Recently ran into someone who wore it to a job interview.

A warehouse with items neatly arranged on yellow shelves.

MFTA warehouse aisles.

Photo Jordana Vasquez

While serving schools and arts nonprofits has long been its primary focus, COVID marked a turning point that expanded MFTA’s scope. During the pandemic, the program began hearing from those beyond its typical membership base: groups making cloth face masks for neighbors, mutual aid groups, and social justice groups, all in need of supplies.

Sansone said, “We had to redefine arts and culture in New York City to be able to support artists and open our doors to accommodate New Yorkers in need.” That meant supplying fabric for face masks, donating furniture to hospitals, and providing resources to social justice groups inspired by the protests. He added, “Why wouldn’t we donate to Queer Black Lives Matter and donate material to make costumes or vinyl to make banners when we had it right here in the warehouse.”

MFTA later loosened membership criteria, eliminating the two-year arts programming requirement and allowing nonprofits to only show proof of current programming: “A small LGBTQ organization, Parks to Promote Literacy Was reading – it was an application where I was like, how come we’re not giving them a subscription?” Sansone said.

A group of people with shopping carts walk around a warehouse.

Buyers gather in the aisles of MFTA’s warehouse.

Photo Anthony Sertel Dean

What MFTA collects also benefits New Yorkers who are not using these goods for creative purposes, providing clothing and supplies to the city’s administration for children’s services and homeless services and Supporting recently arrived asylum seekers in coordination with city partners and community groups.

“I know we’re not supposed to be political because we’re city government, but I feel like there’s activism in what we do,” Sansone said. “I can’t help but feel that way every day because of the impact we make on people’s lives.”

While other similar reuse programs certainly exist, MFTA is unique in the scale of its operations with city support, and other municipalities are also looking to this example, now in its fifth decade. Sansone said, “If every major city had supplies for the arts, the world would be a much better, greener place, and artists and students would be much happier.”

Of course, Sansone acknowledges, the city budget faces cuts from time to time, but she’s safe from the pride the Department of Cultural Affairs takes in the program: “We make New Yorkers so happy, we replenish the budget, and we help people get things that they couldn’t necessarily afford. I don’t think this will ever go away, and if it did, I wouldn’t mind protesting in the city council. Will be scared by the number of people coming.

Various fabrics hang on the tables and quilt work hangs on one wall.

Artist-in-residence Woomin Kim’s studio in the MFTA warehouse.

Photo Anthony Sertel Dean

Since 2012, MFTA has also run an artist residency program, whose alumni include Sui Park, Michael Kelly Williams, and Jean Shin. Sansone said she hopes to expand the residency program and add more studios and create state-of-the-art education spaces — and a larger warehouse may also be ready.

“The more we receive, the more we can give,” he said.

In a studio outside the warehouse, artist woman kim Recently created a vibrant series of collaged fabric panels on view there through May 3 during his residency. “I was putting clothes in this giant plastic Ikea bag,” Kim recalled of her first trip to the MFTA warehouse several months ago. “‘This entire warehouse is available for me to make some projects?’ It felt like a utopic place.

A Korean woman bends on the floor while adding pins to a quilt-based artwork.

Woomin Kim at work in her MFTA studio.

Photo Anthony Sertel Dean

The constant churn of change at MFTA reflects the rhythm of New York life and serves as a source of artistic inspiration for Kim, he said, recalling being fascinated by a carousel horse that only stayed in the warehouse for a few days. Was. ,

“New York is full of things and people, but here you actually get a glimpse of it, physically, because of the sheer volume of things coming in and people taking it all at once,” Kim said. “People are consuming and throwing away all the time in this city. This organization feels just like New York—you feel the energy of the city.”


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