Divided Road

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

An art car as part of an oil company's in-house morale-boosting contest? To some people, that's a sicker joke than any of the most tasteless parade entries.

Barrett, who acts as liaison between the company and the foundation, says she's aware that some participants recoil in horror at the thought of corporate sponsorship.

"I've been very sensitive to that -- I know they don't want to appear too corporate or compromise their artistic integrity, etc., etc," she says, perhaps more glibly than some art car artists would like. "We try not to do that -- we participate in the spirit of the event, and we don't dictate how the event should be run, or what sort of entries should be allowed."

Dim lighting distracted from the Astrodome Art Car Ball.
George Hixson
Dim lighting distracted from the Astrodome Art Car Ball.

Not surprisingly, Theis agrees that Pennzoil exhibits a sympathetic hands-off attitude toward the parade.

"They support us in ways that we think honor the spirit of the event….I guess, to me, I have been here long enough to understand what it takes in resources to keep this thing going, and I just hope that people appreciate that we can find a sponsor who supports the essence of what all this is about," she says.

Perhaps more surprisingly, some of the most vocal artists, ones who don't hesitate to criticize if they feel the event is messing up, echo Theis's view.

"They don't tell us what to do -- Pennzoil couldn't care less about what we do….You can have penises, tits, a controversial political position, it's all okay with them," says Harris, the creator of the Fruitmobile and a parade mainstay ever since. "Having a corporate sponsor is a hell of a lot better than trying to get funding from the [National Endowment for the Arts] and have some fucking redneck Republican senator tell us we can't show a woman's tits, or say, 'That's too controversial' about something."

"I think Susanne and everyone over at the Orange Show do a pretty good job of making sure the corporate sponsors don't mess things up," says the boundary- pushing Scranton.

But that does not mean all is right in parade-land. Even as they give a pass to Pennzoil, some artists say the Houston International Festival is ruining the parade.

The city-sponsored festival forces the parade to take a limited route that keeps viewers close to the booths of its licensees. Last year, after festival officials complained that the parade was too long and was keeping people from spending money while it went on, the number of entries was, for the first time, limited. No more than 240 cars are now allowed to participate. (The city also balked at the length of the growing parade, saying it consumed too much police time.)

"It used to meander all through downtown. Now it's just one block right through the festival," Harris says, exaggerating for effect.

She and some other artists want the Orange Show to end its association with the International Festival and move the parade to another date. The latest three-year contract between the two entities ended with this year's event, so a decision will have to be made one way or the other.

"If they sign back up with them, then next year the artists are going to have their own event," Harris says. "We're going to take it back….It's not that we won't also participate in their parade, but we will take it back and make it ours if we need to. The people will follow the artists."

Of course, talking about starting a rival parade is easier than actually doing it.

"I've thought about different ideas, but it's so time-consuming and expensive to pull off, I don't know if it will happen," says Scranton. "It would take someone with some big gonads and a whole lot of fucking time and energy to do it."

The festival no longer gives any money directly to the Orange Show Foundation, but as a city event it is exempt from being charged for many things that anyone putting on a parade by themselves would be hit with, like charges for police overtime, shutting down streets or getting a parade permit. Such costs could be anywhere from $25,000 to $50,000, Theis reckons.

She has heard the complaints about the festival. "People feel very passionate about it, and we want to do the thing that's right for the event," she says. "Part of what we're going to figure out is whether it's just the loudest people who feel that way, or does everybody feel that way."

There are some advantages to working with the festival beyond the saving of money, she says. The festival has a well-oiled publicity machine, and it does "provide a great experience for the spectator," she notes. "You can go hear some great music afterwards. It makes a nice package for people to do. Whether that is enough to have us continue with them is something we'll have to examine."

Breaking free might not be easy, though. International Festival officials have told the foundation that the parade is the festival's property. In the past, they've even sent out feelers to other arts groups around town, like DiverseWorks, to see if they would be interested in replacing the Orange Show.

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