City of Tacoma Arts Administrator Amy McBride is the recipient of the 2017 UW Tacoma Distinguished Alumni Award.
(In the photo above, City of Tacoma Arts Administrator Amy McBride, '10 MAIS, leans against 5 Stages, by Saiyare Refaei and Tiffanny Hammonds, along the 11th St. side of the 953 Market Street building in downtown Tacoma.)
Amy McBride made a decision during the start of her freshman year in high school. McBride described her childhood self as quiet, maybe even a little awkward. “I decided I was sick of being shy,” she said. “I was like, ‘I’m going to learn everybody’s name, I’m just going to join every club and force myself to be out there.’”
She never looked back. McBride, the affable arts administrator for the City of Tacoma, is the recipient of this year’s UW Tacoma Distinguished Alumni Award. McBride graduated from UW Tacoma in 2010 with a Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies (MAIS).
McBride is Tacoma. Around town, she’s almost as recognizable as the Dome. McBride’s status as local icon stems from both her personality and her role as arts administrator. McBride took a circuitous route to where she is today. She grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, one of four children. “I always liked art and music but I never thought of myself as an artist,” said McBride.
Following high school, McBride attended the University of Colorado Boulder. She graduated with a degree in fine arts, French and philosophy. McBride’s choice of majors caused more than one person to ask “what are you going to do with that?” Her future may not have been clear but that didn’t bother McBride. “I followed what I liked to study,” she said. “I always had a feeling that I’d figure it out.”
McBride spent the next few years working within the field of international education. She moved to Washington, D.C. to work for the National Association of Foreign Student Affairs. In her spare time, McBride would make art, mostly “decorative stuff.” What started as a hobby slowly morphed into a passion. “I decided I wanted to move to San Francisco and go to art school,” she said. “I packed up my Toyota and drove across the country.”
McBride enrolled in the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. She got a job in a restaurant and eked out a living while she studied sculpture. “I waited tables and I did art and it was awesome,” she said.
McBride eventually moved from San Francisco to Montana. Her time in “Big Sky Country” proved short-lived. She moved to Seattle less than a year later in search of better opportunities. McBride took a position as the arts coordinator at Bellevue College. She served in that role for three years before moving to Tacoma. She got the job as the public art specialist soon after her arrival in the city.
Amy McBride will be recognized as the 2017 UW Tacoma Distinguished Alumni Award recipient at this year's Paint the Park Purple event at Cheney Stadium, Friday, August 4. The Tacoma Rainiers will take on the Memphis Redbirds at 7:05 p.m., with McBride throwing out the first pitch.
Not too long ago talking about public art in Tacoma elicited very strong responses. The tension stems from an early-1980s proposal to install art on the Tacoma Dome. The city set aside $280,000 for the project and invited proposals from esteemed national artists including Andy Warhol. The community pushed back for a number of reasons including the decision not to include local artists. The project was eventually shelved.
McBride arrived fifteen years after this controversy but opinions were still heated. She had to tread lightly and slowly build trust. Her tenure has been marked by steady and substantial progress. She has been the impetus for a number of ventures including the Tacoma Murals Project and Spaceworks Tacoma.
McBride is guided by a fundamental belief in the power of art. “We’re always looking for the ‘value add’ that arts and creativity can play in our community,” she said. The Office of Arts and Cultural Vitality—where McBride works—is housed within the city’s economic development department. In Tacoma, McBride found an ascendant city, one whose moment has arrived, and one that already had built a strong arts foundation under her predecessors. “Potential is fantastic, it is a creative space,” she said. “To be a town of potential means being a place that attracts creatives.”
It’s one thing to recognize momentum. It’s another to capitalize on that energy and turn it into something positive. McBride’s approach to her work started to change around 2008. She credits the MAIS program at UW Tacoma for helping expand her vision of the possible. “All of these ‘ah-has’ that I learned about professional development totally changed how I approached some of this technical assistance and training capacity that we do at the city,” said McBride.
There is perhaps no better example to illustrate the arts as economic engine model than Spaceworks Tacoma. The program launched in 2010 as a joint collaboration between the City of Tacoma and the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber of Commerce.
The venture has its origins in the empty shop windows lining downtown’s shuttered Woolworth building (formerly the local branch of F.W. Woolworth, the national five-and-dime retail chain). McBride transformed them into temporary art museums. The idea has since expanded to include what McBride describes as a “decentralized incubator” that widens the traditional definition of art while promoting small business. “It’s about creativity and innovation,” she said. “Spaceworks includes a wide variety of innovators and makers including filmmakers, furniture makers, clothing designers and chocolatiers.
McBride’s philosophy is multi-pronged. She believes in training professional artists so they can compete in the world of public art. She also believes in community involvement. “We have to use the arts in a way that allows people to participate because maybe that’s their jam,” said McBride.
Central to McBride’s strategy is her belief in the ability of art to do big things. “I always talk about how public art isn’t just a guy on a horse,” she said. “The idea is to train artists in the field of public art so they can work with agencies and other stakeholders to address the needs of the community.”
McBride’s role as arts administrator is a natural extension of the promise she made to her teenage self. She continues to push herself and by doing so she’s helping grow a thriving arts community in Tacoma. “I didn’t know when I came to this city that this whole new batch of superpowers would come alive,” she said. “My work, this government and art, allows me to create space for the most creativity to thrive.”
Written by Eric Wilson-Edge; Photos by Ryan Moriarty