At the height of summer the school art projects that will decorate classroom walls and refrigerator doors next fall were already taking shape this week in a warehouse in Long Island City.
There, a teacher from the Bronx picked up lids for students to draw old-fashioned portraits. Another, from Brooklyn, walked down aisles to find the perfect chains for her school’s jewelry club. Hundreds of other teachers roamed the shelves.
The warehouse of Materials for the Arts (MFTA) is a creative reuse center, where donated supplies are distributed to thousands of New York City public schools and non-profit organizations for free. This center saves teachers money out of their own pocket, while helping them tap into their creative side and invent new projects that integrate art into the everyday classroom. "What we are trying to do is really trying to bring art into subjects such as math, science and social studies and promote ourselves as the resource to do so," says Rachael Kuo, Materials for the Arts' communication coordinator.
The teachers who come to MFTA are learning to use reusable, unconventional materials to create viable art programs in their schools. Kuo says it’s "getting them to rethink the idea of what can be incorporated." MFTA does this by offering courses on how items from the recycling bin and other supplies can be used to make projects. The classes also help teachers develop lesson plans that encompass even more art into their classrooms.
With help from the classes and unique materials from the warehouse shelves, teachers are able to provide their students opportunities that they wouldn’t usually receive because of insufficient funding. Prior to knowing about MFTA, Anna Castelli, a teacher at the Theater Arts Production Company School in the Bronx, would have to buy all the supplies for her classroom. So she says that MFTA is a "valuable resource."
"And it gives me ideas for other art projects," she adds. "Already being here for twenty minutes, I have two or three new art projects planned."
Insufficient funding for arts education is the reason why teachers are using MFTA. According to the New York Times between 2006 and 2013, schools’ funding for the arts dropped by 84 percent. The Times article was based on a report earlier this year by Comptroller Scott Stringer, in which he proposed ways to fix the funding problems. Gale Brewer, the Manhattan borough president, did the same in another report released last week. (Brewer also announced $20,000 in grants to fund schools arts programs). Mayor Bill de Blasio increased funding for arts education by $23 million in his new budget—a major improvement that still leaves art funding below where it was in 2001.
Within those budget constraints, teachers are finding ways to inspire imagination and creativity in their students, turning the obstacles into advantages.
Jewel Randall, a teacher at PS 49 in Brooklyn, started a jewelry club to fundraise for numerous events around her school. Over 40 students have joined the club, and it runs completely on the free supplies from MFTA which, Randall believes, "evokes a sense of creativity because they are materials that they [the children] normally don’t see."
Teachers visiting MFTA on Tuesday said they rely on the warehouse for most, if not all, their supplies.
"The warehouse is such an amazing resource for teachers," said one visitor. "We can get everything we need for our classrooms, not only to create these amazing projects, but to make our classrooms more functional."