MFTA Loves NYC: A Retrospective of Creative REuse
Held – April 16, 2015 – August 12, 2015
Since 1978, MFTA has steadily transformed New York City’s cultural community, educational sector and environmental landscape. MFTA is the largest source of material inspiration for thousands of nonprofit organizations, city agencies and public schools-from set designers to museum educators, public school teachers to performance artists, and beyond.
The mission, elegantly paraphrased by philanthropist Agnes Gund, “connecting those who have with those who need,” lives at the intersection of culture and commerce, providing a way for businesses to positively impact the arts while protecting the environment.
ANGELA FREMONT, an enthusiastic young artist was hired at the Department of Cultural Affairs (DCLA) in 1977 as part of the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) Artists Project. Fremont worked for DCLA at the Arsenal until one day she overheard that the nearby Central Park Zoo was in desperate need of a refrigerator to house medicine for the animals. Fremont combined her networking abilities with her artistic resourcefulness and enlisted the help of friends who ran a radio program out of their Upper West Side basement. After broadcasting the request live, Fremont was optimistic about a response. Within minutes, her phone was flooded with calls, and in a matter of days the zoo had a new refrigerator. The idea for Materials for the Arts was born. However, Fremont had neither the resources nor the connections to transform her idea into reality. That is, until Henry Geldzahler.
HENRY GELDHALZER was appointed as DCLA Commissioner in 1977 by Mayor Edward L. Koch. A former curator of American Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Geldhalzer was celebrated by all those in the cultural sector for his uncompromising taste, bold personality, and fierce confidence. Famously quipping that being the Commissioner of Cultural Affairs in New York City was like being “Mayor of Wheat in Kansas,” Geldhalzer’s enthusiasm for his position and for the Agency was infectious. He met with each employee in a series of one-on-one conversations that began with the simple prompt: “So, what do you want to do?” When it was Fremont’s turn, she explained she wanted to expand the success she experienced at the Arsenal to the cultural community. Geldhalzer loved the idea and the Materials Donation Program was born.
THE MATERIALS DONATION PROGRAM
The Materials Donation Program ran as a two-woman operation at the Arsenal from 1978 to1980. Fremont had the help of a part-time assistant, a driver, and one van. In 1980, DCLA moved its offices to 2 Columbus Circle. At its new headquarters, DCLA was able to oversee its own exhibition space, City Gallery, and host in-house cultural events for the first time. The move proved to be transformative for the Materials Donation Program, as it acquired 3,000 square feet in the unheated basement of PS1 in Long Island City to house the donated materials. Thanks to additional funding from the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA), DCLA was able to hire an additional full-time employee to work alongside Fremont. She chose Jill Moser.
JILL MOSER was in her last year of Hunter College’s MFA program, attending classes at night and working by day as an urban archaeologist in lower Manhattan. Her career as an artist was growing and she was searching for a new day job in the arts. Both she and Fremont had studio space in WPA, an artist collective downtown on Broadway. When Fremont mentioned that she needed a new assistant at the City’s innovative Material Donation program, Moser jumped at the chance. “It was much more appealing than selling ads for art magazines or working in a gallery,” Moser explained. “I got the job because I could type and drive a truck! It was a great gritty time to be working for grassroots arts organizations in a city still reeling from the recession.” With their unbounded imagination and daring ambition, the two women drove their van everywhere to retrieve and collect materials.
Fremont and Moser
FREMONT AND Moser proved to be a dynamic team and they tirelessly promoted the program to artists working on public projects and in nonprofit exhibition spaces. Fremont worked on outreach, while Moser oversaw the warehouse and worked with individual artists to write proposals and solicit materials for their respective projects. Fremont and Moser recognized the increasing need for materials in public schools’ art programs and opened the warehouse one additional day a week for public school teachers, occurring well before MFTA formally partnering with the Department of Education in 1997. Together, they were able to conduct more outreach, increase donations, secure greater exposure, and spearhead Materials for the Arts’ very first fundraising event: Spare Parts.
TO CELEBRATE the success of the MFTA mission within the DCLA, an art exhibition was held in the City Gallery at 2 Columbus Circle in the spring of 1983. The name of the show, “Spare Parts,” was chosen because it identified the underlying concept of the private sector sharing its unneeded or unwanted materials – its spare parts – with artists across the five boroughs that needed materials. Artists and arts organizations submitted proposals for work around the theme of reuse and employing materials acquired through MFTA. The show was curated by Fremont and Moser under the guidance of Henry Geldzahler. The event caught the imagination of the NYC arts community, attracting well-known cultural figures and media attention. Leo Castelli, a benefit committee member, suggested turning the celebration into a fundraising event by auctioning the artists’ work. Louise Bourgeois and Elaine deKooning generously donated work created from donated materials. Christie’s handled the silent auction. With just 6 months of preparation and a budget of less than $10,000 (with $5,430 coming from donated services) the show had an exuberant opening on May 26, 1983. The evening included theater, music, videos and work from 49 artists who had 36 works in the gallery, and another 10 outdoor installations.
WHILE FREMONT laid the groundwork for MFTA, miles away Susan Glass was spearheading new initiatives and opportunities for artists. Graduating from the University of Wisconsin in 1978, Glass’s interests geared toward helping artists learn how to survive and thrive. After a stint as a CETA artist at American University’s Arts Administration Program, she was asked to be the administrator at Columbia University’s brand new Arts Administration Program. The program fit her desire to merge the worlds of business and administration while making a positive impact on the arts. The curriculum emphasized training artists to be administrators, thus ensuring that artists’ place in the art world could extend beyond exhibiting their work. While at Columbia, Glass secured a fellowship at the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Serendipitously, while at NEA, she was asked to review a recently submitted grant proposal from MFTA.
FREMONT CONTINUED to work tirelessly at MFTA, growing the program until 1984 when she resigned to return to her own teaching practice. Shortly thereafter, Glass was approached by DCLA and offered the chance to become MFTA’s new director. MFTA was a perfect union of her interests. She could now work with artists and arts organizations to provide them with access to free materials. This allowed the organizations to save money and use those funds where they were most needed – for programs and staff. Filled with ideas from her years in arts administration, Glass knew securing funding was integral to developing MFTA. As a program of DCLA, MFTA was a municipally funded organization. Without private funds, how could a City program grow? In response to the burgeoning environmental movement, Glass was asked to speak at a National Resource Reduction Conference in San Diego in 1988. That’s when it occurred to her. MFTA was not only about the arts. As a reuse center, the program also addressed New York City’s new efforts at waste reduction. While other donation centers offered options for everyday materials like clothing and housewares, MFTA provided a resource that addressed bulk surplus generated by New York City businesses.
GLASS COMBINED her knowledge of the inner workings of City government with her newfound perspective on the program by finding an enthusiastic champion of reuse, the Commissioner of New York City’s Department of Sanitation (DSNY) Brendan Sexton. Sexton immediately recognized MFTA’s value. He was in the midst of compiling DSNY’s Preliminary Recycling Plan, which would be the first major recycling program that New York City had undertaken. Incorporating reuse into DSNY’s plan was “an instant winner,” said Sexton, noting that reuse comes before recycling in the ubiquitous triple RRR mantra. According to Sexton, MFTA was DSNY’s chance to really engage the general public in waste reduction, since it offered such a “wacky and wonderful” solution that appealed to the artistic community. Thanks to Sexton, MFTA received $100,000 to support and grow the program. By partnering with Sanitation, MFTA gained additional credibility and strength, and was now able to better communicate its mission.
BY 1989, Glass and Moser had scoured the five boroughs for an appropriate and affordable space. In 1990, MFTA bid farewell to the crowded basement at PS1 and moved to a 10,000-square-foot space in what is now the Chelsea Market in Manhattan. Glass, a natural connector, traveled the country promoting MFTA on the arts and environmental circuits. She gained increased support from state and federal agencies. The funds they donated she used to expand staff and secure additional vehicles to manage the growing volume of donations. She received funding from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to update and reprint the step-by-step guide, “Starting a Materials Donation Program,” which explained how municipalities could implement the MFTA program. Ironically, this was the original project that Glass had reviewed when she was at the NEA. In 1990, Tim Doyle joined MFTA as Deputy Director. Thanks to private funding, Doyle oversaw the creation of MFTA’s first online database to track material donations. This major step allowed MFTA to move seamlessly into the new era of computers and advanced technology. Glass, Doyle, a shifting team of drivers, warehouse helpers, and office support continued to add recipients to the roster, which began to include social and community service organization with arts programming. Simultaneously, public school teachers were clamoring to get in.
IN THE mid-1990s, the NYC Department of Education (DOE) wanted to bring back arts education to all schools. For more than a decade, the arts had been nearly eliminated across public schools in the five boroughs as the DOE grappled with budget cuts. With the support of Dr. Sharon Dunn and Chancellor Rudy Crew, Project ARTS (Art Restoration throughout the Schools) was conceived and implemented. Recognizing the opportunity for MFTA to support this initiative, Glass and Dunn brokered an agreement for some additional funding that would permit public school art teachers to have regular access to MFTA’s warehouse. The funding allowed for the hiring of a few new staff members, one of which was the Education Director. Glass found and hired Harriet Taub.
Taub, a natural educator and innovator, became MFTA’s liaison with the DOE’s constituents and began to figure out ways to train these new MFTA recipients on how to best incorporate nontraditional materials into their classroom practice. A requirement of this intra-city agreement was the expansion of the MFTA warehouse and programming to accommodate the art teachers. Glass and her team worked to renovate a 20,000-square-foot space in another section of the Chelsea Market. After a series of stops and starts and some serious lessons on the machinations of New York City real estate, the renovated space was never finalized. Instead, DCLA rescued MFTA by securing a 25,000-square-foot space in Long Island City.
GLASS’S VISION for MFTA reshaped the program in lasting ways. She orchestrated a unique working partnership among three City agencies and created an influential advisory board. In addition, she developed MFTA’s first branded look. Taub would soon work to transform the Advisory Board into a nonprofit with the establishment of Friends of Materials for the Arts. This would foster MFTA’s growth into the next century generation.
TAUB BECAME Executive Director in November 2000, two months before the warehouse was moved from Chelsea to Long Island City. With her experience as MFTA’s liaison between DOE and Project ARTS, Taub had the unique outreach experience to know the difficulty of convincing teachers of the virtue of MFTA’s nontraditional supplies. “They’d ask ‘where are all the watercolors?’” recalled Taub, “we had great stuff, but they just didn’t know how to incorporate these supplies into their classroom curriculum.” She knew the key to demonstrating MFTA’s value would be to educate teachers on the variety of available uses of nontraditional materials. One way to do this was by conducting workshops for teachers. Along with Joy Suarez, a talented teaching artist and seasoned MFTA shopper, Taub brought bags of materials to teachers all over the City to get them excited about creative reuse. Their dream of creating an Education Center at Materials for the Arts was about to come true.
A new Education Director, Ann Woodward, was hired in 2001. Woodward’s vision included free community workshops to engage the public in reuse. She continued outreach to DOE teachers and staff and, along with Suarez, they offered workshops to Parks and Recreation staff members, art service providers, and art therapists. Momentum was building, and in 2004, thanks to a multi-year grant from the New York Community Trust (NYCT), a newly designed professional development course, “Creative Reuse” was launched.
In 2004, when space adjacent to MFTA’s warehouse became available, Taub saw an opportunity to expand and create a real Education Center with permanent classrooms and room to grow. Thanks to the advocacy of Commissioner Kate Levin, MFTA was able to add an additional 10,000 square feet to the operation with a ribbon cutting in 2009.
ALL THIS growth would not have been possible without the support and guidance of Friends of Materials for the Arts. Founded in 2002, the four original board members — John Peebles, Leithter Meulen, Barbara Randall, and Gail Gershon — were previously members of MFTA’s Advisory Board. Their vision and determination allowed for more robust fundraising and board development. As a public/private partnership, Friends of Materials for the Arts enabled MFTA to expand beyond its original mission. It was the Friends who underwrote the cost for the creation of a new database and launched a website. The board attracted members, and the partnership strengthened resulting in a MOU with the City of New York in 2007. Today Friends of Materials for the Arts is led by Board Chair Bonnie Weill who has held this position since 2007. Enthusiastic, dynamic, and most of all committed, Friends of Materials for the Arts board members are the organization’s best advocates.
TODAY, MFTA is a very busy place. The warehouse offers shopping nine times a month with day and late afternoon appointments to accommodate all schedules. A robust Volunteer Program offers the public the opportunity to give back to the arts and cultural community by organizing and sorting in the warehouse. Other offerings include a gallery to showcase the work of artists whose practice includes reuse; an artist-in-residence program; and a monthly open studio program. All of these initiatives are underwritten by Friends of Materials for the Arts.
Under Education Director John Cloud Kaiser’s leadership and vision, MFTA currently offers five professional development classes approved by the New York City DOE After School Professional Development program (ASPDP). The Education Center provides more than 200 field trips to MFTA’s warehouse every year and has five in-school residencies and an expanding after-school program. With the help of a talented group of teaching artists, MFTA’s Education Center helps teachers develop curriculum based around hands-on learning, environmental education, and, most recently, the Common Core. In 2014, more than 17,447 students and 5,447 teachers were involved with the MFTA Education Center. MFTA’s nonprofit partner, Friends of Materials for the Arts, has made possible the creation of MFTA’s gallery space, the first ever since 2 Columbus Circle, fostered a successful artist-in-residence program, and hosted monthly art-making workshops.
FROM AN unheated basement to 35,000 square feet, MFTA owes its success to New York City’s ability to think creatively. In the coming years, our goals are to provide free field trips to all NYC public schools, make donating easier for companies and individuals, and increase MFTA’s visibility in all five boroughs. MFTA loves NYC.