Organizing at Materials for the Arts

5 Jun

What: Organizing supplies and general ‘housecleaning’

Where: Materials for the Arts, Long Island City

When: 6-8pm, 1st Wednesday of every month through  New York Cares

Inside of this very unassuming building lies the Materials for the Arts warehouse; a treasure trove of paints, office supplies, fabrics, paper, zippers, and more. For over 30 years this program -part of the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs and funded by DCLA, the DSNY (Dept of Sanitation and the DOE (Dept of Education)- has provided thousands of New York City’s arts and cultural organizations, public schools and community arts programs with the supplies they need to run and expand their programs. In doing this, they are also reducing waste by promoting the reuse of these materials, keeping these supplies out of landfills and putting them into hands that need them.

When I got off the subway in Long Island City, it took a second for me to figure out where I was and which direction to walk. And by ‘second’, I mean I was 15 minutes late due to my complete lack of directional sense. So when I finally arrived on the third floor, where MFTA is located, no one was there to great me except for a sign that read “New York Cares Volunteers—>”. I followed the sign around the corner, through a doorway or two, and found myself entering a very large space that felt like the back storage of a Target or other large superstore. Tall shelving units filled with bins of donations organized by category (Office Supplies, Crafts, etc.). I found my group by the Trim and Notion section, and was happy to know I wasn’t alone.

There was an assembly line of sorts happening, with 4 volunteers washing, rinsing and drying the yellow bins that store the various wares available. The warehouse gathers a LOT of dust and grime, so the bins could use a good cleaning, and that’s what we were there for. I started out drying bins, but then got moved to the ‘organization’ group. There was a row of bins that had not yet been completely sorted; it was also in the craft section, where things are hard to identify and probably get moved around a lot when people are picking through for what they want. I was told to pick a  bin and find a place for everything in it. Easier said than done, for me at least.

Word of advice: If you have any obsessive compulsive tendencies, you may want to avoid volunteering here, or bring a sleeping bag because you’ll be in for a long night. For artists and creative people who can see beauty and art in many things and find use for these items in future projects, this warehouse is a dream come true. A place to go for anything, even stuff you may not know you need or normally can’t afford, and that’s the whole point of this place. However, I found myself perpetually distracted by the disorganization I saw and had a hard time not being able to fix it. I would pick out a few buttons from my bin, and set out to the ‘Trim and Notion’ section to find their place. When I found a bin of miscellaneous buttons, I thought that it would be nice if all of THOSE buttons were organized by color. When I found some Christmas cards and went to put them in a ‘paper’ bin, I really wished I had time to empty the bin on the floor, and re-sort into ‘holiday and non-holiday’ paper. But alas, Rome wasn’t built in a day and I surely wasn’t going to reorganize an entire warehouse in two hours. After I got over that, things went much smoother; if I found a polaroid of a stuffed animal sitting with a plate of cookies (which I did), I found it a home. When I found a few model airplane kits for small children, I found a bin with similar items and tossed them in. By the end of the night, we had managed to put a dent in the bins, emptying out and condensing about 10-15 of them and reorganizing others. A few minutes before 8, we took the clean bins and swapped them with dirty ones, which will get washed next time the volunteers come to help.

For a creative mind, this is a goldmine of inspiration waiting to be picked apart and sifted for gems, which can be different for each person that walks in. I can imagine it being a great source of supplies for the teachers and organizations that take advantage of this service. It allows them to provide their clients, students, what have you, with more than they could have previously. Since a lot of the donations come from corporations or large organizations, it isnt uncommon to find a large amount of items lumped together, for example, there were two bins of burnt umber concentrated paint in the section I was working in. That could easily be used to complete a huge project or a lot of smaller projects. Basically, this place is awesome for people who can plan ahead and see a purpose for a variety of items.

If you can’t make it to the New York Cares volunteer project, don’t fret: you can volunteer directly with MFTA for a few hours based on your availability, helping to sort and fold fabric, label paint cans, straighten up framing supplies or make small repairs on furniture. Contact their volunteer coordinator at for more information. Other things to know:

  • Projects vary, but expect to be bending over, picking things up or just moving things in general. Dress for this, and keep in mind that there are paints and dust and other things that may get on your clothes.
  • I wasn’t kidding about the OCD. If you’re the type of person that lines up soda cans in the fridge so the labels are all facing the same way, or you organize your book collection by color and size, this may not be the best place to volunteer. There won’t be enough time to organize everything, and it may frustrate you. OR, maybe you SHOULD volunteer here… I don’t know. I’m not a psychologist.
  • I found some great stuff that gave me a chuckle or made me wonder where it came from. For example, who got this Autobiography of Terry the dog from the Wizard of Oz, and why in the world did they give it away? I’ll never know. This intrigues me. There are a lot of intriguing things here and if you’re like me, you’ll enjoy finding these little treasures and imagining the person who owned it last (In this case, my vision was an old theater matron ala The Producers who drank martinis and wore lots of fur).

  • Do you qualify to shop here? Possibly, if you are a not-for-profit arts and cultural group; NYC Department of Education art teacher; Social service, health, and environmental organization with an ongoing art program; or government agency, you might. Click here to find out more about becoming a recipient.

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