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Art teachers collecting free art supplies at Materials for the Arts in Long Island City, New York (courtesy of Materials for the Arts)

Back to school season is here. It’s a happy occasion for most parents and teachers, but for art teachers in public schools, it might also mean having to reach down their pockets to purchase expensive art supplies for their students. In a 2018 survey released by the federal Department of Education, 94% of public school teachers in the United States reported paying for supplies without reimbursement during the 2014-2015 school year. The teachers in the survey reported spending an average of $479, while 7% of them reported spending more than $1,000. To help ease the burden on art teachers, Materials for the Arts (MFTA) in Long Island City, New York kicked off its fifth annual Back to School Shopping Spree program, which invites teachers to collect art supplies for their classes free of charge. The program, officially launched on August 27, will continue through the end of September.

MFTA is a program of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, supported by the city’s Department of Education and private donors. It is NYC’s largest reuse center, annually collecting over 1.5 million pounds of materials, donated from businesses and corporations, in its vast 35,000 square foot warehouse. The reusable materials are distributed to public schools, City agencies, and nonprofits with arts programming. In the fiscal year of 2019, Materials for the Arts provided over $3 million worth of materials to NYC public schools, the organization wrote to Hyperallergic in an email. Since 1998, the organization has been allowing teachers to “shop” in its warehouse for free reused materials for their classes.

“We’re here to support teachers,” MFTA’s spokesperson Bliss Green-Morehead told Hyperallergic in a phone conversation, “We are a way for them to supplement their programming.” According to Green-Morehead, an average of 50 teachers have visited the warehouse every day since the Back to School program started on Tuesday. Fabric, paper, and mannequins were among the more popular items.

While it offers traditional art supplies like paint, canvases, and paper, MFTA’s strength is in reusable items, from fabrics and beads to binders and file folders. “These nontraditional items encourage a more creative approach to art teaching,” Bliss Green-Morehead said. To help teachers make use of the nontraditional items in class, the organization provides them with instruction kits with ideas for art projects. A puppet made of file folders and book made of envelopes are two examples. “We always have binders at MTFA because companies are all going digital,” Bliss Green-Morehead said. “We want people to look at things in their daily life and see how they can transform them and make use of them.”

Teachers interested in shopping during the Back to School Shopping Spree are required to make an appointment online at MFTA’s website. Shopping appointments are available every week on Tuesdays from 10:30am to 1:30pm and Thursdays from 2:30pm to 6:00pm. Educators must be registered through a New York City public school. If a teacher has not been added to their school’s MFTA account, they should contact their principal to be added.

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Hakim Bishara

Hakim Bishara is a staff writer for Hyperallergic. He is also a co-director at Soloway Gallery, an artist-run space in Brooklyn. Bishara is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital...