Art with a (Re)Purpose

by Lisa Mulchay
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A Look at the Work of Sloan Award Winner, Harriet Taub from Materials for the Arts

Materials for the Arts (MFTA), a government arts agency based in Long Island City, NY, rounds up unwanted or unneeded materials from businesses, groups, or individuals. They distribute these items to nonprofit theaters, arts, and educational programs throughout New York City’s five boroughs—for free, no less. 

MFTA is based in a 35,000-square-foot warehouse, and each year a staff of 17, with the help of 1,000 volunteers, collect and redistributes almost two million pounds of materials that would otherwise end up in a landfill. Fabric, art supplies, office furniture, lumber, glue, and thread are all put to creative use as props, sets and costumes. Theater artisans, along with arts educators from over 4,000 non-profits get to shop for materials at MFTA. 

A little history: MFTA began life in 1978, when artist Angela Fremont found out that a refrigerator was needed for the Children’s Zoo in Central Park. She got the word out on a radio program, and many offers of fridges instantly materialized. This experience prompted Fremont to found MFTA—she was already working for NYC’s Department of Cultural Affairs—and over the next dozen years, the agency grew with the skilled guidance of its director, Susan Glass. MFTA’s partnerships with other NYC agencies expanded, and funding was procured from the Sanitation Department, in recognition of the agency’s commitment to waste prevention, reuse, and recycling. In fact, 1,630,000 lbs. of materials were saved from the waste stream in 2016. Materials for the Arts offset CO2 emissions equivalent to 553,500 trees, which is 25x the number of trees in NYC’s Central Park.

Harriet Taub, MFTA’s current executive director, has infused the agency with a new sense of energy and growth since coming on board in 1990. Connecting with artisans and educators as well as NYC’s kids has been a major focus. For all of her generous contributions and work, Taub was recently awarded a 2017 Sloan Public Service Award, which has honored extraordinary New York City public servants since 1973.

Harriet Taub

A Perfect Fit

Taub’s dad was a huge influence on her repurposing philosophy from the time she was a child. “I had a fantastic father—he was a tinkerer, a florist, a master of many different kinds of work he did with his hands,” she recalls. “He was a real Renaissance guy. I learned from him a love of stuff—of things you could use in any number of ways.”

While studying ceramic sculpture in college, one of Taub’s professors suggested she pursue arts education. She followed that advice and graduated from NYU’s Steinhardt School of Education, working initially in documentary filmmaking. Taub, whose father taught her to sew, turned her skill at making unusual clothes for her daughter into her own fashion company. “After that experience, I started sewing as a tailor, working with materials, again,” says Taub. “When I heard about a job that had opened up at MFTA. It sounded perfect for me.” Then when MFTA executive director Susan Glass decided to leave, Taub’s energy and hard work at MFTA made her the natural fit to inherit the agency’s leadership position. 

Though artisans and educators are happy to shop the MFTA warehouse, sometimes Taub relies on her vast contacts to make the perfect connection between materials and end-users. “ I really like the fact that at any given moment, anything might come my way that will be the right fit for someone I know. Like when a donor had given me a number of swords; out of the blue,” she recalls. “They were pretty heavy, so I knew they wouldn’t really work for kids in a school setting. I didn’t know exactly what they could be used for, so they were sitting around my office and then I suddenly knew what to do with them. I called Jay Duckworth, the Propmaster at the Public Theater, and said, ‘I’ve got these swords, do you want them, by any chance?’ He was like, ‘YES!’ So that’s where they went, to the Public Theater. That’s a great example of how things happen here. A donor gave us these great items, and they served that theater’s needs at that time. You can’t really do this work unless you have connections in that way.”

In the end, Taub believes the success of MFTA boils down to a basic, beautiful intention. “Angela Fremont had an idea that was simple and elegant: what people have and don’t want should be given to those who need it,” Taub summarizes. “We have that idea to guide us in what we do—which is, we want people to create, and be inspired by work outside the mainstream.”