MFTA’s beloved executive director steps down after 20 years

Photo by Sarah Shatz

She’s an artsy gal.

Harriet Taub is starting a new chapter. After 20 memorable years, she stepped down Friday, July 31, after serving as Executive Director at Materials for the Arts (MFTA) and leading the unique and uber-popular, yet hidden, Long Island City-based institution – a cornerstone of NYC’s rich and diverse arts and cultural community.

As her last day at MFTA was approaching, Taub told QNS, “It is bittersweet for me,” as she reflected on her beloved organization and wonderfully artsy, career. Here, the perhaps, reluctant retiree tells readers about her years of passionate dedication to spreading creative reuse across Gotham and inspiring organizations worldwide. She also addresses some of the current challenges facing the arts, and cultural organizations.

Under Taub’s proactive leadership, the City-run organization (located in a 35,000 square-foot warehouse), has diverted over 24 million pounds of donations from the landfill, valued at over $120 million. During normal times, these donations were distributed free of charge to thousands of artists, educators, performers, nonprofit arts organizations, and other members of NYC’s creative community. Like Tender Buttons, a well-known button shop (now closed) that made news a while back by donating thousands of vintage buttons to MFTA, which has also grown to be the number one provider of free materials to the NYC Dept. of Education.

These days, MFTA’s important work continues – albeit with different guidelines – despite the ongoing pandemic.

“After all these years, I guess the thing I am most proud of is the creation of our Education Center,” Taub said, adding, “It was a dream I shared with Joy Suarez, who is now our master teaching artist. I remember exactly where we were, on a street corner in midtown, in 1998, when I said: ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could create a program to train teachers to utilize the kinds of materials we have at MFTA? They could then educate their students and the cycle of creative reuse would begin.’”

Now, 22 years later, and through the efforts of many of her colleagues, Taub is prouder than ever of the robust, year-round Education Center, which boasts student field trips, professional development workshops for educators, an art gallery, an artist-in-residence program, and many public programs.

“Our program has pivoted to online programming. Even field trips! We have a virtual gallery tour, online professional development classes. Our next artist-in-residence may be a bit delayed, but our current artist began before the pandemic and is preparing for his show which once hung, will be shot on video and available online. What we don’t have, is in-person shopping at our warehouse,” Taub explained.

She added: “My life and my identity has been so tied up with MFTA since 1998 that it will feel strange to separate from that. However, I am an advocate for change within an institution and I think it will be an exciting time for the next ED to come in and put their own stamp on the program.”

Helping in times of need

Recent stories about MFTA include their support for hospitals. They helped create special spaces for hospital workers needing to de-stress. For years, Angela Montague, Associate Director of Social Work at Metropolitan Hospital in Manhattan, had been teaming up with MFTA to provide arts and crafts materials for patient groups. She was also involved with the hospital project and helped develop a respite room, which she and her colleagues have been enjoying.

“We have worked with art therapists and social workers from NYC Health + Hospitals for many years,” Taub noted. “When we were contacted by our friends from Kings County (Brooklyn) and Metropolitan for furniture and supplies to assist doctors and other medical professionals, Tara Sansone got right to it. Along with other members of the donations team, they were able to support the hospitals as they created break and mourning rooms for staff who needed a place to unwind and create some art.”

Virtual programs & exhibits

A tour of the warehouse and art gallery was videotaped two days before MFTA’s doors were shut in March. “With many staying at home during quarantine, we wanted to bring MFTA to you,” Taub said. You can learn more about creative reuse and enjoy a self-guided 3-D tour of the facility.

The Online Education Center is filled with resources for projects and lesson plans across the curriculum.

“We have used both of these tours in our online Field Trips for DOE students,” Taub noted, adding, “Our Third Thursday Open Studios program, curated by our Education Director John Cloud Kaiser, is normally held at our warehouse with an artist leading members of the public in a hands-on project. It went virtual in April, which actually opened up the program to people all over the world and not just those who could make it to our LIC facility.”

You can also tour the MFTA Gallery’s latest exhibition, “Contemporary Reuse 2020,” and take a sneak peek into their artist studio and view works by MFTA Artist-in-Residence Tijay Mohammed. The annual exhibit showcases artists who make creative reuse a central part of their practice. This year’s show also features must-see works by Cecile Chong, Lars Fisk, Howard Lerner, Carolina Peñafiel, and Jason Rohlf.

Lastly, MFTA’s professional development classes for educators also went online in April and have been a tremendous success, according to Taub, who noted that this summer’s five courses were all booked up.

Finding beauty in everyday objects

On another note, Taub was eager to share the inspiration behind her love for creative reuse.

“I grew up with a dad who was a tinkerer and a maker. He was self-taught and held a series of jobs as a florist and warehouse manager, while I was growing up. He was also a weekend drummer,” she recalled.

“I think I inherited his creative spark, and also his ability to see the value in everyday materials and found objects. So, for over half a century, I have advocated for making do with what is around you. At MFTA, we are a leader in the field of ‘Creative Reuse,’ and I take great pride in meeting with and talking to, people from all around the world who want to start their own ‘MFTA-like’ program in their city.

An activist at heart, Taub was named a NYC Climate Hero for her leadership in climate action this past Earth Day.

And though she lives in Jersey City, she said she has spent the last 20 years “commuting to and loving LIC and Queens.”

Fingers crossed…

Addressing the current challenges facing MFTA, as well as the arts and other cultural organizations, Taub told QNS: “Look, NYC is the center of the universe in terms of the arts. Everyone is looking forward to our city’s return, but it will look and feel different. Every day, people are making plans and talking to the experts on what that reopening looks like.”

She continued: “We all understand that funding is key to the eventual reopening of our arts institutions, large and small. While the budget at the Dept. of Cultural Affairs has been reduced, we are lucky that our funding at MFTA is steady. For us, MFTA has been the go-to place for thousands of arts nonprofits for four decades. The grass roots and small groups who have flourished in communities across the five boroughs, have been hit especially hard over the last four months. Our job is to be a resource and help provide them with materials, so they can create programs – online, or socially distanced – to support their constituents.

“When we get the word from City Hall that we can reopen, with all the safeguards in place for our staff and members, we are raring to do that,” she added.

While MFTA has been closed these last few months, Taub said several staff members, especially Deputy Director Tara Sansone (who became the Interim/Acting Exec. Dir.), “have gone above and beyond to help our members who were making PPE for essential workers.” And recently, MFTA gathered arts materials for delivery to some of the DOE’s Regional Enrichment Centers in the Bronx and Queens, which are the sites where children of essential workers have been cared for since mid-March.

“Early on, we identified needs and tried to help fill them with our own brand of ‘get it doneness’ that we are known for,” Taub proudly noted. “All of the work that has been done while we have been officially closed has been especially rewarding. I am grateful to the MFTA team members who answered the call and helped those in need during this very trying time.”

She added: “The arts bring people together. It is essential for us to have the arts in our lives and I have no doubt that NYC and the arts community will rebound. It may take some time and we will continue to wear masks but … we will be back!”

Shopping, donation drop-offs, and public events at MFTA have been cancelled until further notice, due to the pandemic. Information about reopening will be posted as soon as it becomes available. Please check Materials for the Arts website for the latest updates.

In the meantime, you can visit MFTA’s Instagram to see how artists are transforming commonly found objects into art.

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