Divided Road

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

Beth Craig is an independent contractor who works for the International Festival as liaison with the Orange Show. As owner of Beth Craig Events, she's responsible for helping put on events like the Art Car Parade and the Bank United Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Even though people inside and outside the Orange Show say there's tension between the festival and the parade, Craig says things are terrific.

"We think it's a great event -- they produce a great parade, and we provide a great venue and city services," she says.

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

She hasn't heard any complaints, she says, not even the big ruckus of last year when for the first time the number of entries was limited.

Perhaps 60 entrants had their applications to parade denied by Orange Show organizers, but Craig says, "As far as I know, they did not turn any people away." Cars that had paraded, unchanged, for many years were "rotated out" to allow new cars in, she says.

Craig says she has not heard anything that would indicate the festival and the Orange Show won't sign another contract, but Theis isn't so sure.

"The festival has been building a future without us, if I can read the tea leaves right," Theis says. "And we've been preparing ourselves to take on more of the task ourselves without them, but how quickly that can be done is hard to say."

A split raises the specter of competing art car parades. Of course, not splitting raises the same specter, if the highly annoyed artists can get their act together. Either way, the result could resemble the farce of the Westheimer Street Festival, a loosely organized street fair that eventually pissed off the gentrifying yuppies of Montrose enough that it was moved to various places downtown. A replacement fair was promptly resuscitated by a different organization at its original spot, put on whenever they can get the proper permits and leaving some visitors wondering which is the more artistically and politically correct one to attend.

"The worst-case scenario is that it turns into something like the Westheimer Street Festival, where no one knows where it is any given year or what it is," Theis says.

Even if the foundation was to break ties with the festival, the innocent, anarchic days of the past -- when art cars splattered skyscrapers with grapefruit launched from air cannons -- won't return.

"It's never gonna be like it was in the early '90s, when it just took over downtown," Scranton says.

Some of that is just because key participants have aged. "At its peak, there were 56 cars that came in from out of state, and that helped the event grow to be this great national gathering of the art car clan," Theis says. "We've lost a bit of that because we've all gotten older, and people's idea of fun is no longer camping out for three weeks in a painted Citroën as they try to get to Houston."

But once the parade took the great leap it did by spontaneous combustion, the "old days" were doomed.

"Everything changed again for us in 1997 when The New York Times put a picture of the parade on the front page of their Sunday newspaper," Theis says. "Every pressure on us from every side has been to get more organized. The audience demands information about the cars, and the media demands information about the cars."

"If it had just stayed with the few artists doing it, it would be great and fun and quaint, but it wouldn't have become the huge thing it is," Harris says. "The artists want it to grow. It can't be the teeny parade it was when it first started."

The job of putting on what has become a giant parade has, in many senses, overwhelmed the original mission of the Orange Show Foundation. The parade doesn't really make anyone want to visit the McKissack home. And volunteers and staffers can often find themselves being taken away from the various in-school programs and research projects the foundation does to pitch in when the parade crunch hits.

But Theis says the parade also exemplifies the foundation's mission, which she says is to celebrate the art in daily life, the art created by nonprofessional artists who have followed their muse. Even if that muse tells them to turn their home into a monument to the orange, or to sheathe their house in beer cans.

"The great joy in visiting one of these types of places is meeting the person who's finally followed their inner voice," she says. "And the Art Car Parade is this moment when all these people who have experienced that in their own lives get to show their work. It's like a miracle. It's an incredible event for an organization like ours to have stumbled onto. It makes the mission real in ways that are almost unimaginable."

Certainly the current state of the Art Car Weekend, with corporate sponsorships, huge Dome parties, rules and restrictions on artists, would be "almost unimaginable" to those who were there at the beginning.

"You can't stay small," Theis says. "You don't have a choice."

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