Recycling for art’s sake draws LIC shoppers

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Shopping excursions at the Materials for the Arts supply center in Long Island City tend to resemble family trips to the wholesale warehouse clubs commonly found across suburban America.

Customers typically come in groups, pushing metal shopping carts along aisles stacked floor to ceiling with bins, which they peer into excitedly upon making unexpected discoveries.

Like faithful wholesale club patrons, customers have to secure a membership in advance before they are granted shopping privileges.

But when they reach the check-out counter and sign on the dotted line, they clutch an invoice rather than a credit card receipt, and no cash changes hands.

Customers never pay a cent for their merchandise — instead, they send out thank-you notes.

Materials for the Arts is a city-sponsored program that accepts donations of unwanted materials — which can be anything except food, clothing and bedding — and collects them for use by non-profit arts groups and city schools.

Although it was originally run exclusively through the city Department of Cultural Affairs, MFA now receives additional support from the Department of Sanitation since it reduces waste by reusing materials and the Board of Education, which recently signed on so public school teachers could have access to the 20,000-square-foot warehouse.

“What we’re trying to do is to convince people that art is not just paint and paint brushes and Crayola,” said MFA’s director, Harriet Taub. “We want to get people thinking creatively. The process should be accessible to everybody.”

The roots of MFA can be traced back 20 years to an artist who was employed through a government program at the Central Park Zoo. When she realized the zoo needed a refrigerator where animal medicines could be stored, the employee asked a local radio station to put out a donation request over the airways.

“They were flooded with phone calls,” Taub said. “And so the idea for this material exchange was born.”

The program set up shop in the basement of PS 1 in the late 1970s, later moving to a Chelsea Market warehouse space in 1990. MFA moved into its present location at 33-00 Northern Blvd. earlier this year, where its presence was immediately felt by local arts organizations.

“I think they have provided an essential service to the arts and business community that before their arrival was sorely lacking,” said Adam Rubin, the director of special projects for the Long Island City Business Development Corporation.

Although MFA only opened its new space in early April, by May the organization was already playing an integral part in Art Frenzy, a four-day arts festival that showcased the creativity of Long Island City artists and non-profit groups.

Special days were set aside for artists to raid MFA’s hordes of creative treasure, and the materials appeared at the festival in the most unexpected of places.

“Mannequins’ body parts became sign holders — artistically rendered to look robotic — to guide visitors here and there,” said Hong Yee Lee Krakauer, the executive director of the Queens Council on the Arts, which co-sponsored Arts Frenzy with the LICBDC. “Their materials were put to very visible use, and they really lent a unique flavor to the Arts Frenzy.”

The materials proffered at MFA are as varied as the organizations that donate them, which range from Victoria’s Secret to Silvercup Studios and the Museum of Modern Art.

For artists, that means they are only limited by the depth of their own creative imagination, which in many cases knows no bounds.

“The artists come here and they get anything they can use for their projects — anything from Styrofoam to steel,” said Joel Graesser, a Socrates Sculpture Park employee who is presently working on stainless steel sculptures.

“You never know what you’re going to find,” Taub said while giving a quick tour around the warehouse space. “On any given day you can find ... some artificial lemons,” she said, dipping her hands into a box before pulling out a clump of small plastic lemons hanging off a vine.

Customers might also come across such novelties as 58 boxes of artificial snow from the latest Woody Allen movie, stacks of sealed Bacardi bottles and piles of unused Christmas cards issued by the Museum of Modern Art.

In addition to attracting well-established artists in search of challenging materials, MFA also provides help to non-profit organizations offering arts programs to the community.

“It’s definitely opened up my spectrum as far as workshops I can offer people in Queens, because I do have a budget,” said Danielle Johns, a workshop facilitator at the Queens Museum of Art. “I can only spend so much money.”

Indeed, a visit to the MFA warehouse is far less taxing on the wallet than it is on the mind — for all parties involved.

“There’s a cost to recycling. There’s not a cost to reuse,” Taub said. “The only expense is the creative expense.”

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.

Posted 7:19 pm, October 10, 2011
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