Return of the MECCA, the basketball court that became the world’s largest pop art painting
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Ah, the Bucks of the ’80s. Fifty-win seasons, duct tape on Nellie’s sneakers, and a starting center with a perm. But the first thing Milwaukeeans of age will remember is artist Robert Indiana’s basketball court. In 1977, our civic leaders made the forward-thinking decision to put Milwaukee on the creative map by combining sport and art with the MECCA Arena’s floor. This Friday, basketball and creativity come together again, as the court will be assembled for a special one-night-only event at the now-U.S. Cellular Arena. The A.V. Club talked with organizer Andrew Gorzalski, who schooled us on the floor’s history and future.
The A.V. Club: What is the origin of Robert Indiana’s floor?
Andrew Gorzalski: I’ll reference George Gonis’ definitive Milwaukee Magazine article from 1989 a bit here. In 1977, the MECCA (Milwaukee Exposition Convention Center & Arena) was attempting to market itself in a variety of ways. Steve Marcus, head of the MECCAʼs Board Of Directors PR committee, spoke with Judie Posner (an internationally recognized Milwaukee art dealer) about his desire to get the MECCA known around the country. He was thinking of a major work of art, and suggested they have a world-renowned artist glorify the MECCA name in the jump-ball circle.
Posner went to New York and met with Robert Indiana, neither knowing anything about basketball. She recalls the scene as the blind leading the blind. After sitting in silent contemplation, Indiana exclaimed, “I donʼt want to do just the jump ball circle. Letʼs do the whole floor!”
AVC: Why is the floor important to Milwaukee?
AG: As I’ve worked on this project, I’ve kept Milwaukee’s creative legacy in mind. We could never have gone from zero to Calatrava as a community without key intermediate steps. Indiana’s floor is one of the critical milestones for Milwaukee that started to define us as a creative place.
The floor itself is truly the world’s largest pop-art painting, and the only entirely painted basketball floor in the history of the sport. There’s no wood surface exposed. It truly is a painting.
AVC: What is the floor’s future?
AG: In cooperation with Robert Indiana, our group is currently evolving the floor into a practical viewing form as a new sculpture. Flux Design has partnered with us to serve as creative fabricators of this sculpture, a vehicle for the floor to be seen again in galleries everywhere. I feel that after this proposed tour, the MECCA will return to Milwaukee as a symbol for future generations to think big. My main priority is to help this piece become an anchor and catalyst for a new multi-purpose arena that entertains the entire state of Wisconsin.
AVC: How did you personally become involved with taking ownership of the floor?
AG: A friend forwarded me a link to an architectural salvage site, where Robert Indiana’s MECCA floor was being sold in pieces on the equivalent of Craigslist. It was in limbo after leaving the Wisconsin Center District as a donation to an up-and-coming charter school that didn’t make it. I jumped in, giving this salvage site my credit information to hold the floor in its entirety for a scary amount. I’m really hoping my obituary includes: “Idiot who owned the world’s largest pop-art painting for about a month.”
I’m lucky enough to have professional relationships with Jim Paschke, Mike Grahl, and Senator Kohl, so I reached out to them. We found legendary Milwaukee spark plug Greg Koller, who purchased the floor intending to use it as a symbol of Milwaukee’s creative rebel spirit. Tragically, Greg passed away unexpectedly in the early stages of planning, but he entrusted the legacy of the floor to his son, Ben. The Koller family is passionate about delivering on Greg’s leap of faith.
AVC: If the Bucks get a new arena, what will the floor look like?
AG: Milwaukee should rock the boat again. The new floor should be challenging and creative. We’d be the darlings of the sports blogosphere and beyond. The artist community in Milwaukee has probably never been more rich, and there would be some logical candidates to echo the idea of 1977 on a large scale. It’s a no-lose situation for us to show the world how unique we are as a city. I’d buy paint brushes to get that going today if needed.
Tread on Robert Indiana’s floor Friday, August 23, from 7-10 p.m., and mingle with Marquette and Bucks legends, with new works by artist Reginald Baylor, live art by Dwellephant, music by DJs Kid Millions and Andy Noble, and more. Tickets are $10. More information at ourmecca.org.