Tacoma Dome: For Amy McBride, Warhol’s rooftop flower is larger than the Dome

In January of 1982, a brief, two-page letter from New York City arrived at Tacoma City Hall. The sender, Vincent Fremont, might not have been familiar to people who didn’t pay attention to the international art world. But the letterhead printed in bold letters was immediately recognizable: Andy Warhol Studio. Fremont was a close associate of Warhol’s for nearly 20 years, and he was writing on behalf of the famous artist, who wanted to create public art for the Tacoma Dome.

“Andy Warhol would like to see the Tacoma Dome as a large flower,” wrote Fremont in the simple, one-page proposal.

How Warhol became connected to Tacoma is a story familiar to local historians.

In March of 1980, Tacoma voters approved a plan to spend $28 million to build an indoor area. An ordinance created in 1975 set aside one percent of the total construction budget for public art. That meant $280,000 was up for grabs. While the building was under construction, the City of Tacoma convened a panel of art experts to attract high-profile artists and their proposals. In the end, four artists—Stephen Antonakos, Richard Haas, George Segal, and Warhol—were paid $4,500 each to create original art. Antonakos envisioned a roof painted blue and illuminated by neon arcs and angles. Haas imagined a cluster of stars and constellations. Warhol saw the Dome draped in a bright flower. Segal’s proposal, destined for the inside of the Dome, included statues of trapeze artists and acrobats. In the end, Antonakos’s neon design was briefly selected before it was de-selected after much public hand-wringing, as well as concerns the art work might compromise the roof’s structural integrity. Instead, Antonakos created neon art for inside the Tacoma Dome—a move that led to more rounds of controversy and public outcry.

More than 30 years later, the mood has changed and public art at the Tacoma Dome is in the news again. A campaign is under way to place Warhol’s design atop the Dome. In February, Tacoma City Council voted unanimously to support a campaign to raise money for the project. The estimated $5.1 million needed to see Warhol’s work crown the iconic, City-owned downtown arena will come from the private sector—not City coffers.

City of Tacoma Arts Administrator Amy McBride has been a strong advocate for the plan. Three years ago, she presented a fascinating and informative (and funny) slideshow on the history of public art at the Tacoma Dome and Warhol’s connection to the building as part of Tacoma Art Museum’s major exhibit “Andy Warhol’s Flowers for Tacoma” (a video recording of the presentation is required viewing for anyone interested in the topic; it is available online here).

“Andy said he wants to see the Tacoma Dome as a flower,” McBride recently commented. “I think we should fulfill his wishes.”

McBride, 48, was born and raised in Wisconsin, earned a Bachelor of  Arts Degree from the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1988, attended the Academy of Art in San Francisco, and later moved to Seattle, where she began working as Bellevue Community College’s Arts Coordinator in 1995. Four years later, the City of Tacoma hired her as its first public art coordinator. Four years later, she was promoted to Tacoma Arts Administrator, a position she still holds today.

When I met her last month at a downtown Tacoma cafe, McBride told me she wasn’t too familiar with Warhol’s proposal for the Tacoma Dome when she was hired at City Hall. That has changed over the past decade or so as she has done more research, collaborated with Tacoma Art Museum staff, and reached out to representatives of the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

McBride argued the significance of putting Warhol’s work on the Tacoma Dome is huge and manyfold. By most counts, Warhol agreed to create only one other public art commission—a mural depicting the mug shots of 13 criminals, it was created for the 1964 World’s Fair in New York but was painted over following its own round of controversy. Warhol also created an entire series entitled ‘Flower for Tacoma Dome’ based on the Tacoma commission. And a giant flower atop the Tacoma Dome could be a huge draw for the city and raise awareness for arts in Tacoma.

"Andy [Warhol] said he wants to see the Tacoma Dome as a flower," says City of Tacoma Arts Administrator Amy McBride. She supports an effort to cover the roof of the downtown arena with a flower designed by the late Pop artist. "I think we should fulfill his wishes." (FILE PHOTO BY TODD MATTHEWS)

“Andy [Warhol] said he wants to see the Tacoma Dome as a flower,” says City of Tacoma Arts Administrator Amy McBride. She supports an effort to cover the roof of the downtown arena with a flower designed by the late Pop artist. “I think we should fulfill his wishes.” (FILE PHOTO BY TODD MATTHEWS)

“[The] next step is to hire a development firm to do some legwork determining who should sit on the capital campaign committee and identify the best funding targets and goals for raising the money,” McBride told me when I asked her about the fund-raising campaign. “This step will help us solidify the framework for implementing a well-organized campaign. Unlike a non-profit institution, this is an ad hoc effort and we need to structure it effectively for a short-term goal.”

McBride spoke to the Tacoma Daily Index at length about the plan to place Warhol’s design atop the Tacoma Dome. Extended excerpts of our conversation are included in today’s edition of the newspaper.

This article is part of a larger ongoing series of profiles and oral histories that feature key people associated with the history of public art at the Tacoma Dome. The series began last month with the local architect Lyn Messenger, who created the original rooftop design for the Dome (see “Tacoma Dome: Before Warhol’s flower, Lyn Messenger drew diamonds on the Dome,” Tacoma Daily Index, March 30, 2015), and continued last week with Ellida Lathrop, who pushed for the One Percent for Art ordinance that eventually created a budget for public art at the Dome (“Tacoma Dome: How Ellida Lathrop helped to shape public art at the Dome,” Tacoma Daily Index, April 6, 2015). Our conversation has been edited for clarity and abridged for publication.

“This captured Warhol’s imagination.”

I talked to Vincent Fremont, and he said this captured Warhol’s imagination. There was something about it. He said Warhol got a lot of offers. He certainly didn’t pick them all. This was something that must have captured his imagination, which I think is interesting.

But what else is interesting is that he’s really only ever done or proposed two public art projects. The other one was the World’s Fair installation, which was a bunch of federal wanted posters of criminals. [New York Governor Nelson] Rockefeller ordered it to be [painted over], and Warhol wasn’t going to do public art after that. So this was going to be the first time that Warhol attempted it [since then].

“Even if people didn’t know anything about art, they would know who Andy Warhol was.” 

[Warhol's proposal] was probably the least popular. He was the most controversial back then because he was the most controversial artist, I think. He was the only one that any layperson would know because he was a celebrity. He was on TV. Studio 54. Vidal Sassoon commercials. You know, this wacky New York guy. So even if people didn’t know anything about art, they would know who Andy Warhol was and not like him for whatever he stood for—or like him! I mean, I was never a giant Warhol fan. I have grown to appreciate his work and what he has done, particularly as we look at our culture now, just sort of how our lives have become pop culture in a way that they never were, in some weird way. But [there's] also the test of time. His reputation as a preeminent American artist. Period. Like it or not, he’s huge.

“It is a really lyrical and poetic piece of his work.”

There’s a series called ‘Flower for Tacoma Dome.’ There are about nine or ten different images. It’s the same image, but different color schemes. That is something that, over the course of the past couple years, has hit me as kind of—wow!—he created a series based on [the Tacoma Dome proposal]. So that puts the piece in this whole different context [in terms of] his body of work. [Tacoma Art Museum Curator] Rock [Hushka] was saying flowers have always been a consistent piece throughout [Warhol's] work, no matter what he was doing. It’s always been something that he has wanted to do. I think that back in the day people assumed that he was being snarky or whatever. But it is a really lyrical and poetic piece of his work.

“This would be an icon for a cultural community.”

There are definitely people who oppose it. There always will be. I’ve come to terms with that. We are not going out expecting everybody to like everything. That’s impossible. So let’s not have that expectation. But I think that there’s support in the way that there never has been before. I think it’s way, way more positive than it’s ever been.

The negative things are kind of the same old, same old. Some of it is wanting to protect the Dome or pay attention to deferred maintenance that needs to be dealt with whether we do anything with it or not. Some people just don’t like change and they don’t want to see their skyline change. Fair enough. That’s common. People are concerned that money should be spent elsewhere. But it’s not like we have a big pile of money laying around that we are choosing to do this with. It’s got to be privately raised. Some people say, “Why not a local artist?” They think it’s a choice. It isn’t. It’s intrinsically linked to the Warhol name to any ability to even approach dollars like that.

But the arguments aren’t like, “We hate art.” Back then it was so poisonous. We’re such a different community now than we were then. This would be an icon for a cultural community that exists.

“This is more than art.”

I think it has the opportunity to telegraph who we are as a community. This is more than art. If the City were to say, “What’s something that we could do that could bring eyes to our community that nothing else would? What would make people pay attention to Tacoma who never heard of us, cared about us, or anything?” This is something that will do that in a way that I can’t even fathom.

A community effort is under way to place artwork designed by the late Pop artist Andy Warhol during the early-1980s atop the Dome. (IMAGE COURTESY CITY OF TACOMA)

A community effort is under way to place artwork designed by the late Pop artist Andy Warhol during the early-1980s atop the Dome. (IMAGE COURTESY CITY OF TACOMA)

To read the Tacoma Daily Index‘s complete and comprehensive coverage of a proposal to place Andy Warhol’s art atop the Tacoma Dome, click on the following links:

Todd Matthews is editor of the Tacoma Daily Index, an award-winning journalist, and author of A Reporter At Large and Wah Mee. His journalism is collected online at wahmee.com.