Divided Road

As art car festivities move further from their roots, events could be heading on a collision course

Theis knows the Astrodome party has gotten mixed reviews at most, but says the Dome was the best of a limited number of bad options.

Back in the days of the oil bust, it was easy to find a garage downtown willing to close during the week for the time needed to put on the ball. Finding space became more difficult as downtown got busier, however, so the party was shifted to Saturday nights, after the parade. But that never really worked -- people liked the idea of a preparade party to kick off the weekend, and artists and volunteers were too exhausted to do much by Saturday night. Friday nights were out, because the artists have to have their cars on Allen Parkway by 8 a.m. Saturday.

The city suggested using the George R. Brown Convention Center, "but that sounded like death to us," Theis says. The Orange Show negotiated for two months to use the garage of a building closed for renovations on the West Loop near Westheimer, but that fell through.

Like the beetle car, success has turned the parade upside down.
Deron Neblett
Like the beetle car, success has turned the parade upside down.
Theis with "Flower Man" artist Cleveland Turner (top) and in parades past.
George Hixson
Theis with "Flower Man" artist Cleveland Turner (top) and in parades past.

"It was owned by an insurance company, and I don't think they were too crazy about having 5,000 people drinking beer on the roof," she says.

So they settled on the Dome. But Aramark is the exclusive concessionaire for the Dome, and it wouldn't allow free beer or food for the masses. And the foundation couldn't afford to have the entire place lit up all night, leaving the event in semi-darkness.

"It was like attending a really bad, really cheap car show," says photographer George Hixson, an Art Car Ball veteran. "None of the colors of the cars jumped out. They should have had it lit up all night like they did when they were trying to get us all to leave at the end."

"The learning curve when you're in a new space is always pretty tremendous," Theis said a few days after Art Car Weekend. "Right now we're all still too tired from the event, so we can't tell in terms of problems what came from the learning curve and what's just not right with the space. It was a glorious night outside that night, so it would've been great to have been outside. And obviously we could have used the space better. But we'll study it and listen to what people have to say and decide what to do next year."

The event is a fund-raiser for the Orange Show, but even with the high-priced tickets and crowd of 4,000 or so, Theis says the costs associated with using the Dome, and inflation, mean this year's event likely won't raise a whole lot more than the $15,000 netted at the first ball in 1991, when 700 showed up.

With all the free tickets given out -- maybe 1,500 or so to artists and companies that donated services -- the Orange Show will be lucky to net $30,000 on the ball even if almost six times as many people showed up as came ten years ago.

The entire Art Car Weekend is supposed to be a fund-raising godsend to the Orange Show, the organization that spreads the gospel of homegrown folk art as epitomized by Jeff McKissack, a former mailman who turned his Munger Street home into an eccentric monument to the orange.

But the Orange Show Foundation has never capitalized efficiently on the fact that a quarter-million people show up at its parade each year, especially in these days when you can't attend a rock concert without walking past a bazaar of high-priced T-shirts and souvenirs.

The weekend eats up about half of the group's annual budget of $500,000 and demands long, long hours of staff and volunteer time. "It has just become this huge thing -- I think it's hard for anyone on the outside to understand what it takes to put it on each year, the time and energy it takes," Theis says.

It wasn't always this way. The first art car events were haphazard affairs triggered by whimsy and rebellion among the 1980s Houston art underground, which centered around things like the Orange Show, the Lawndale Art & Performance Center, the Public News and the Urban Animals.

Houston didn't invent art cars -- obviously people have been tricking up their automobiles since the days of the Model T. But among the first tentative steps toward today's massive parade was a 1984 fund-raising party for the Orange Show. Instead of auctioning off a BMW like high-priced galas did, the foundation had a 1967 station wagon to offer. Local artist Jackie Harris wanted to decorate it and turned it into the Fruitmobile.

Knowing of other elaborately renovated cars in town, like Scott Prescott's half-car, half-tank Ghetto Blaster, a parade was organized in 1986 down Montrose Boulevard.

It was supposed to end at the Museum of Fine Arts sculpture garden, but Prescott just continued rolling, turning onto Main Street and rumbling downtown until he reached the La Carafe bar.

When the Orange Show brought a bunch of art cars to Munger Street that year, 1,400 people showed up in two days to see them. "I didn't know 1,400 people even knew where the Orange Show was," Theis says.

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