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The hot-button exhibit? The museum's "Secret Wars" show, which comments on everything from meat eating to the Persian Gulf War. While it might not be for typical Monet-loving museum patrons, the four-year-old art car institution has never tried to pass itself off as a typical stuffy gallery -- or a lair of bin Laden, either.
"It's made for the community, to provoke feeling and emotion, and that's what it's all about," says museum docent Donna Huanca, 21. She was working alone when two federal agents arrived about a half-hour before the museum opened on November 7.
When Huanca told them they needed to wait until the doors opened at 11 a.m., they flashed FBI and Secret Service badges. Huanca wondered if it was an art crowd prank, but they told her they were following up on complaints they received about anti-American activity at the museum.
"I said, 'There's really nothing anti-American about self-expression, right?' " and the agents replied with a "kind of smirk," she says. Huanca got business cards identifying them as Houston special agents Terrence Donahue of the FBI and Steven Smith of the Secret Service.
"They wrote my name down; they asked me where I went to school and why I worked there," says Huanca, an art and women's studies student at the University of Houston. "And they asked me if my parents knew I worked in a place like this."
Huanca says she offered to give the agents a guided tour and explain all the artwork, but both men gravitated toward a few key pieces in the "Secret Wars" exhibit, conceived this summer by museum director James Harithas and curated by Tex Kerschen. Many of the works are jarring commentaries on American culture and politics, although it's not as if employees were mixing up anthrax in the back room. It's about "that core of struggle in everybody," says Kerschen.
The G-men were particularly interested in It's Easier to Get a Camel Through the Eye of a Needle Than to Get an American into Heaven, by Houston artist Forrest Prince. The 1991 work is a small wooden shadowbox holding a plastic army soldier pulling a missile, with a painted backdrop of camels and fire.
Huanca says the agents seemed puzzled and asked her, "What's that supposed to mean?" Huanca says she tried to explain that the piece represents anger over the purpose of the Persian Gulf War, but that the agents still seemed confused. Later, agents noticed a mock surveillance camera that was part of an installation. They asked if they were being filmed.
"I said, 'Aren't we all undersurveillance?' " says Huanca. "And they were like, 'What?' "
The agents also seemed troubled by Tim Glover's Empty Trellis (revisited), a charcoal sketch of George W. Bush behind a steel trellis, with small gold leaves on the ground. Kerschen says the pre-September 11 piece is a commentary on America's environmental policy.
Houston artist Lynn Randolph's Millennial Children really got the agents scratching their skulls. The apocalyptic painting shows a Houston-like skyline burning out of control. In the foreground, a seated woman and a small girl clutch each other in terror. Beside them is a dancing devil with a drawing of former president George Bush's face on its stomach.
According to the docent, about 400 people have visited the free exhibit since it opened September 21. It runs through the end of the year.
"Some of the pieces could and did offend people, but those are the people who spend a longer amount of time parking their car instead of walking around the museum," says Huanca, adding that others have been so moved that they have left in tears.
Two artists later contributed pieces made specifically in response to the terrorists' attacks on the United States -- neither one seeming all that anti-American. Galveston artist Eric Avery created a wall hanging that shows the World Trade Center towers on fire and a woman crouching over a child under a hail of missiles. And Warren Cullar, a marine veteran, added an acrylic painting of city chaos called New York 911. Part of the explanatory text says, "Now I stand behind the 90 percent of Americans who want to do whatever is necessary to wipe out any terrorist threat."
Not exactly the most subversive stuff.
Huanca says the agents asked where the museum advertised and how many visitors it attracted. After spending about an hour touring and taking notes, the agents helped themselves to free museum literature and said good-bye. Huanca says the experience freaked her out.
"After they left I was thinking, 'Are they going to go to my house, are they going to dig up things on people, are they going to discredit us?' " says Huanca. She was so scared she says she even checked under her car that evening.
Houston FBI spokesman Bob Doguim says the visit was no witch-hunt but rather a response to Attorney General John Ashcroft's request that Americans be especially vigilant of suspicious behavior. The museum complaint was among thousands of calls received by the Houston office since September 11. Doguim says the Secret Service agent went along because the complaining caller said the Empty Trellis work had a "threatening message to our president."
The FBI is committed to checking out any reports of things deemed "un-American or a concern or a threat," Doguim says. "We will leave no stone unturned." He explains the museum inspection by saying that what is not disturbing to one person can terrify another.
"Where do you draw the line? I don't want to be the one to draw the line, I can tell you that," he says.
Apparently Huanca and the Art Car Museum won't be showing up on the Most Wanted Terrorists list anytime soon. Doguim says the agents concluded that the exhibit requires no further investigation. But he acknowledges, "It may not have been their cup of tea."