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Materials for the Arts treats NYC teachers to free school supplies

A Long Island City warehouse offers everything from fabric and buttons to paper and notebooks.

Special education teacher Jane Bishop looks for supplies

Special education teacher Jane Bishop looks for supplies for her students during her Materials for the Arts shopping spree. Photo Credit: Charles Eckert

Back-to-school shopping can be a pricey  proposition for teachers whether their students are in grade school or college.

But some teachers have turned  the chore into a free treasure hunt at the Materials for the Arts warehouse in Long Island City.

They never know what they will find wandering the aisles of the massive space, run by the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs.

There are rows of fabric, buttons of all shapes and sizes and picture frames as well as paper and notebooks.

Everything in the warehouse has been donated, which means you might find some props and other items from HBO’s “The Deuce” along with leftover displays from conventions at the Javits Center. It’s also meticulously organized.

“This fabric is really nice and if you go to  Joann's it’s like $30 a pop,” said Laura Mauro, a theater teacher at I.S. 10 Horace Greely, a middle school in Astoria. “I wanted to do some costume design projects this year.”

Mauro also picked up file folders for her students.

“I want each of them to have a folder but that’s tough because I have like 300 students,” she said. “Having a folder to put all their stuff in is really helpful and they can’t always afford it.”

Materials for the Arts received about 1.6 million pounds of donations in fiscal year 2019.  During that same time, city public schools received almost 500,000 pounds of supplies, valued at $3.29 million.

The warehouse is open to teachers year-round but it’s especially important in September as they are setting up their classrooms for the year.

Free supplies means a break for their wallets, and it diverts countless items from being dumped into the trash, and likely ending up in landfills.

Materials for the Arts started in 1978, with a focus on providing donated materials to arts programs. Over the years it has expanded and joined forces with the city’s Sanitation and Education departments.

“We used to just be the place where you had the stuff and picked it up and that was it,” said Harriet Taub, executive director at Materials for the Arts. “Now we have a very robust education program. We train teachers through professional development and host field trips for students.”

The warehouse is dotted with displays featuring donated items. Christmas tree balls, covered with paint, were transformed into a model of the solar system, and CDs were put together into a silvery statement necklace.

Taub noted that workshops are important because teachers need help figuring out how to use alternative materials. A non-profit was formed in 2002, Friends of Materials for the Arts, to help pay for education programming and other initiatives.

“What do you do with the buttons and the beads, the paper and the cardboard?” she said. “If you know how to use the materials in creative ways, you are a better shopper.”

Frank Holliday and Andrew Robinson, who both teach at the New School -  Parsons School of Design, loaded a cart with picture frames and hardcover blank books to be used as sketch books.

“Supplies are expensive, this is a huge resource for us,” said Robinson. “Sustainability is important at Parsons and students are taught to be conscious of the impact of design on the plant. This becomes a big part of our lesson plan.”

Jane Bishop, a special education teacher at PS 182 in Manhattan, said during her first years as a teacher, she spent almost $2,000 a year on supplies.

She picked up markers, crayons, notebooks and other supplies for her students as well as fabric to decorate the walls of her classroom.

“Cloth, in my opinion, looks more elegant,” Bishop said. “And it’s better than using paper which can go into the landfill.”

While the warehouse is only open to teachers, government agencies and non-profit arts organizations, there are programs geared to the general public. Every Wednesday, members of the public can come in the evening and help sort and display donations and every third Thursday of the month, Materials for the Arts offers a free reuse art-making workshop.

Taub said they often work with city agencies to find homes for large items such as chairs and filing cabinets.

“If you need it, we have it,” Taub said. “Don’t spend money. Put your money in programming and staff.”


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