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.

But slowly Jim and Ann transformed the house into something much wilder. As a wedding present, Jim gave Ann a toilet that California artist Larry Fuente had covered in bright-colored strands of beads. Alternating rings of nickels and pennies tiled the bowl, and a statue of the Virgin Mary stood enshrined atop the tank. Ann adored the toilet; it now commands a place of honor in the Harithas living room.

Ann asked Fuente if he'd give the interior of her new Lincoln a similar treatment. Fuente said he'd rather do a whole car, preferably a '50s Cadillac. Ann ponied up the money.

Ann, in fact, was in love with art cars. In '84 she curated the "Collision" show at the University of Houston's Lawndale Art & Performance Center. The show caused a minor sensation, especially Fuente's Mad Cad, the car that Ann had commissioned. Fuente had encrusted the '59 Cadillac with beads, buttons and toys, given it giant tail fins made of bejeweled flamingos and carousel horses, and set sparkly swans and ducks swimming along the roof.

An earlier version of Harithas in Houston: A swaggering, flamboyant museum director for a swaggering, flamboyant city.
An earlier version of Harithas in Houston: A swaggering, flamboyant museum director for a swaggering, flamboyant city.
An earlier version of Harithas in Houston: A swaggering, flamboyant museum director for a swaggering, flamboyant city.
Suzanne Paul
An earlier version of Harithas in Houston: A swaggering, flamboyant museum director for a swaggering, flamboyant city.

To fund their various projects, Ann and Jim set up the Ineri Foundation, a private entity with themselves (and not a board) firmly in control. For Ann, those projects often involved art cars. Jim's projects, though, had little to do with art. Instead, he made trips to Russia, Cuba and Central America, driving to remote towns and villages and personally handing out medicines to people who might need them.

It's hard to say what those trips meant to Harithas. They were undeniably a way for him to do something good and useful, and he probably took a certain macho satisfaction in driving through, say, El Salvador, crossing checkpoints manned by teenagers with machine guns. But it may be that those trips were purgatives, like his fast: not only a way to avoid the Houston art world, the scene of his defeat, but a way to flush the bitterness from his system.


The same people who talk about Jim Harithas's "missing years" now talk about "the golden age" or his "resurgence," and they usually date the beginning of that period to the opening of the Art Car Museum. Jim had somehow caught Ann's enthusiasm for art cars, or maybe, on some level, he'd always harbored a little of it himself.

Art cars were as indigenous to Houston as cockroaches, and Harithas had always supported regional movements. They also appealed to his sense that art should mean something in the real world. Cars were about speed and movement and freedom, the great themes of the modern city; art cars also had an added layer of meaning, one that wasn't at all what Ford or Toyota had intended. "All art cars are subversive," Harithas proclaimed in his '97 "Art Car Manifesto."

The Art Car Museum, which opened quietly in '98, is likewise subversive; it hijacks the very notion of a museum. For starters, it's intentionally not located in the Museum District; Harithas believes art shouldn't be segregated from ordinary people's lives.

The bulbous, exuberant building -- the work of artist David Best -- can be read as a rebuttal to the CAM, Houston's other silvery museum. The CAM's sleek building feels cool and detached, a slice of minimalism in a noisy, extravagant city; the Art Car Museum looks hot and engaged, and even weirder than its neighbors. From the street, the way-out building raises unnerving questions: Is that thing really a museum? Is it safe to go inside? Why does it need that barbed wire? Are they trying to keep the weirdos out, or to keep them in? But you do not suspect, even for a second, that the place will bore you.

On closer inspection, the Art Car Museum reminds you how much other institutions cast themselves as devices for the tasteful display of wealth. For instance, when you enter the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston's impressive new Beck building, you see donors' names carved into a massive limestone wall, enshrined for the ages. The Art Car Museum is pointedly not called the Harithas Collection, and in fact, Ann and Jim's role as its patrons is hard to discern; there's not even a plaque to tip you off. You might see Ann's name next to her collages, or Jim's on something he has written -- that is, they might present themselves as an artist or a curator, but not as benefactors. The art is enshrined; the money behind it remains invisible.


"Is that too high?" asks Kari Sellers, one of the museum's three young curators. She's holding a Ron Hoover painting against the wall; below it, curator Gabriel Delgado holds another.

"This is Texas," growls Harithas. "You can hang 'em on the ceiling."

Normally Harithas and his bright young curators aren't actually in the museum. They work from the Ineri Foundation's headquarters, which is to say, in Ann and Jim's backyard, in the maid's quarters behind the mansion on North Boulevard. And in point of fact, half their work seems to take place in the kitchen or at the backyard table. Andy Mann and Jesse Lott wander down the driveway without calling first; other artists drop by for opinions on their work, or for help moving a large piece. The place exudes a laid-back, improvisational vibe, like the quad of a college campus, and the arguments -- most often between Harithas and Tex Kerschen, the fiercest of his young curators -- seem downright recreational.

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