An art educator collecting free art supplies at Materials for the Arts in Queens, New York (all images courtesy Materials for the Arts)

For several years, Materials for the Arts (MFTA) has welcomed art teachers to a “Back to School Shopping Spree” at its sprawling warehouse in Queens, New York. Art educators in public schools, who often have to pay out-of-pocket for classroom supplies, were invited annually to peruse through the aisles and fill their carts with free art supplies before the school year begins. That is until last year, when COVID-19 forced the city-run nonprofit to cancel all warehouse visits and transition to curbside pickup. Now, as the school year approaches and while the warehouse remains closed to the public, MFTA has extended its curbside pickup model to its annual, previously in-person “Back to School” program.

The program kicked off yesterday, August 24, with dozens of teachers from schools across New York City picking up new and reused art supplies from a loading dock at the warehouse. Another distribution date is scheduled for August 31 between 10am and 2pm (EST). Teachers are required to schedule a curbside pickup online and fill an online pickup form stating the materials they need. MFTA’s staff will search for the items in the warehouse and prepare them for pickup. Luckily for those who can’t make it on August 31, the service will be available all year long.

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Founded by the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs (DCLA) with support from the Department of Education, MFTA has distributed millions of dollars worth of art supplies over the decades. Since its inception, it has become the city’s largest reuse center, annually collecting over 1.5 million pounds of materials donated by businesses and corporations in its 35,000-square-foot warehouse.

Last year, the organization received 296,677 items in donations, totaling 1,696,693 pounds of reused materials. According to MFTA’s 2020 Environmental Impact Report, the energy saved from recovering these materials is equivalent to more than 1,444 tons of greenhouse gases (CO2e, or carbon dioxide equivalent).

This year, the MFTA has received a large donation from the art supplies company ColArt, which includes over 200,000 high-quality pigment markers valued at $1.2 million. Other items include paintbrushes, canvases, charcoal, and other professional-grade supplies for teachers and students.

Materials for the Arts’s warehouse in Queens, New York

As part of its Back to School program, MFTA offers professional development classes for teachers, lesson plans, creative reuse field trips (online), and in-school programs. Fall professional development classes at MFTA will begin in early October; teachers may earn Professional Credit (P-Credits) and Continuing Teacher and Leader Education (CTLE) hours for their participation.

“The arts bring us all joy and fulfillment and they’re essential to the wellbeing of students,” said DCLA Commissioner Gonzalo Casals in a statement earlier this week, “which is why we’re committed to providing art educators with increased access to supplies during New York City’s recovery from the pandemic.”

Hakim Bishara is a Senior Editor at Hyperallergic. He is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital Arts Writers Grant and he holds an MFA in Art Writing from the School of Visual...