Revolution in Chrome

In the '70s, Jim Harithas's radical chic collided with the CAM. Twenty-five years later, he's back, gunning his engines at the Art Car Museum.

In the late '60s and well into the '70s, Harithas was famous for his ability to make a museum seem like the blue-hot pulsating center of the universe, the right place at the right time. At the straitlaced Corcoran Gallery of Art, that counted as a significant accomplishment.

In '65 Harithas was the chief curator at the Corcoran, one of the oldest museums in the country, located only a block from the White House in stuffy Washington, D.C. In '68 he took over as the museum's director, and soon afterward dispatched his curators to lure "the freak community" to a museum opening; as hippie bait, he proffered a rock band and free food and drink. The freaks arrived in droves and, Harithas remembers proudly, "the dope smell was enormous." To conservative board members, he explained that times, they were a-changing, and if the Corcoran didn't get with it, it would remain the same boring institution it had been for 35 years. The Corcoran got with it. Harithas's short reign is now remembered as the beginning of the museum's lively golden period.

Video artist Andy Mann: Harithas bought his ticket to Houston.
Suzanne Paul
Video artist Andy Mann: Harithas bought his ticket to Houston.
The sexy '70s art world: Norman Bluhm and Harithas.
Suzanne Paul
The sexy '70s art world: Norman Bluhm and Harithas.

In 1971 he took over the Everson (pronounced "Ee-verson") Museum of Art in Syracuse, New York -- a nowhere, upstate university town that he was determined to blast onto the cultural map. Under Harithas, the museum danced on the bleeding edge. Harithas even curated the first-ever major show of video art: a little piece of museum-world history.

But the story that everyone tells first, when talking about the Harithas era at the Everson, is of the John and Yoko show. Harithas had met John Lennon and Yoko Ono at the Leo Castelli Gallery, the New York art world's equivalent of Sam's Bar: Sooner or later everyone ends up there. Practically everyone alive knew Yoko as the woman who'd broken up the Beatles, and as an artist, she was important in the scruffy band of neo-Dadaists called the Fluxus movement. But for all her notoriety, practically no one had ever seen her way-out, high-concept work. Harithas asked if she'd consider the Everson.

Later, John and Yoko invited Harithas and a curator to their home near Central Park West. They were received, of course, in John and Yoko's bedroom. Yoko lay on the bed; John was sitting at its foot. The curator went into shock -- John Lennon! the cultural hero of the '60s! -- and Harithas worried he'd faint. But Lennon produced a pair of guitars and asked the curator to play a few songs with him. The curator remembered all the words. Lennon didn't.

The United States was trying to deport Lennon, an unemployed foreign national, and Harithas was delighted to make the process more difficult by offering Lennon a job as a curator. In fact, Harithas was delighted to turn over his entire museum to John and Yoko.

He'd judged the cultural moment precisely right. On Lennon's birthday, a cold, wet night in October '71, a mob was camped outside the Everson building, waiting for the show to open. A newspaper estimate put the number at 8,000, only half of whom managed to squeeze inside. Ringo Starr and Eric Clapton showed up. John and Yoko took refuge from the crowd in the museum's garden. The opening made national news. Harithas was ecstatic.

Most of Harithas's museum friends warned him to forget about Houston. If you go to Texas, they said, your career is over.

At the beginning of '74, he was 41 years old, a father of three, and a hot property. Not only had he positioned the out-of-the-way Everson firmly in the avant-garde, he'd made the bookkeepers happy. He'd quadrupled the museum's annual attendance, doubled its budget and wiped out its deficit.

Harithas was hailed as a kind of miracle worker, and Houston's Contemporary Arts Museum needed a miracle. Other than a distinctive new building -- the stainless-steel parallelogram was only two years old -- the CAM didn't have much going for it. The museum was nearly broke. Marilyn Lubetkin, head of the museum's search for a new director, told the Houston Chronicle that the board was not only looking for a director, but also "looking for money to sustain the exhibitions for 1974." Rumor had it that the CAM might have to let itself be absorbed by the rich, dull Museum of Fine Arts.

Harithas saw the CAM as a gigantic overripe challenge. Houston was the fourth-largest city in the United States but a hopeless cultural backwater, a place that needed to be woken up. He took the job.

Video artist Andy Mann had known Harithas since 1972, when Mann helped an artist friend install a show at the Everson. As Mann remembers it, Harithas got drunk one night and informed Mann that he didn't have to be a mechanic, that he should be making art of his own. "Anybody can say that," says Mann. But a year later, when he approached Harithas with an idea for a video installation, Harithas came through with money.

After Harithas accepted the CAM job, Mann ran into him at a bar in SoHo. Mann was sick of the New York art scene.

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