Art Car Outs

Like Houston's traffic problem, too many art cars means some will be sidelined at the festivities.
Deron Neblett

Artist Dorman David shelled out a total of $15,000 to beautify his novel '54 GMC pickup over five previous Art Car Parades. After 1999's zany festivities, he spent the better part of a year and $5,000 readying his truck called "Killer" for the 2000 version of the madcap series of events this weekend.

After investing $1,600 at an art supply store for materials, he put eight artists to work for four days in South Texas, applying the final sheen -- a rainbow of colors he calls "candy-apple everything" -- to his beloved Killer.

David planned to pick up the finished beauty last weekend, just in time for the festivities. Before then, however, he learned a hard lesson that largely had been kept quiet within the ranks of the sponsoring Orange Show.

The Art Car Parade, it seems, is a victim of its own success. For the first time, this most democratic of the city's events has been forced to leave some art car enthusiasts parked at the curb. There are too many entries (300) and too few slots (240) for the parade.

When Houston's Art Car Parade launches its serpentine wind through downtown, the expected 250,000 spectators will probably be oblivious to the handful of dissatisfied artists who were sidelined after they didn't make the cut. (The parade starts at 12:30 p.m. at Taft and Allen Parkway on Saturday, April 15, on a route that takes it through the Houston International Festival.)

Parade organizers say something had to give because of the enormous growth of the event. It began in 1984 with nothing more than a 1967 Ford station wagon sprouting fruit for a fund-raiser. That "Fruitmobile" was driven by current Orange Show Executive Director Susanne Theis.

By 1987 what became the Art Car Parade was a minor attraction of the International Festival. One year later there were 40 entries, but it kept expanding -- and kept being imitated in more and more metropolitan areas. Houston now relies on 300 volunteers to keep the crazy wheels turning.

The irreverent organizers don't like to admit it, but a four-letter word -- jury -- has crept into planning this year. The idea of a "juried" exhibition provokes contempt from Jennifer McKay, who runs the parade for the Orange Show. She says that the show and Art Car Parade have been proud of being free of the constraints of other, more formal art shows in the past.

"We will absolutely never jury this parade," Theis says. "It will cease being the Art Car Parade."

Whatever term they use, the group has had to set up a seven-member screening committee representing different segments of the event and its sponsor. Most of the rejects were easy enough this year -- they missed the entry deadline or had remained unchanged in recent years. Others were eliminated through informal judging. One was a yellow Ferrari that drew disfavor because it was covered with commercial signs. The owner argued unsuccessfully that the signage was his expression of art.

(There are a handful of corporate entries, headed by Pennzoil, which got naming rights. But they have been restricted over the years. Organizers say it is not a case of corporations crowding out the artists.)

McKay says that the elimination decisions are tough enough to affect her personally. "It hurts," she says. "It pulls my heart strings; they are pulled and tugged. I don't want to lose friends over this."

Yet McKay acknowledges that the size of the parade had to be reined in for a couple of reasons. The International Festival complained that the length of the procession effectively brought the festival activities to a halt. That cut into sales by vendors, McKay says. And the city refused to expand the parade permit to allow more cars, because that would require more police and related expenses.

Susan Christian, deputy director of the Houston Parks and Recreation Department, says that the parade had to be limited after an experience last year when the festival drew record crowds. "It was so long that the front almost hit the end of it," she says with a laugh. "Somebody had to yell, 'Turn!' "

Organizers have designated space on the Sabine Street bridge, adjacent to the parade festivities, for the display of art cars that could not join in the procession.

David, the former participant now out of the action, says he was very upset when he found out that Killer was curbed this year. But he has mellowed considerably since then.

"There's always next year," he says. "And I probably have another two years before I quit working on it."

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