Divided Road Ahead

After 15 years of a sometimes tense marriage, the Art Car Parade and the Houston International Festival are divorcing.

The world-renowned parade has been a part of the festival since 1988, but next spring it will be held the weekend after the festival closes. As a result, the parade will be free to all spectators and more cars will be allowed to participate -- and it will also have to prove it can survive on its own.

"It's the natural order of things," says Susanne Theis, executive director of the Orange Show Foundation, which organizes the parade. "These are two big events with two different agendas, two different missions, and they have grown together in different ways. It kind of makes it hard to produce the two events together."

Art car organizers had heard a rising chorus of complaints about being part of the festival, which charges $10 admission (see "Divided Road," May 24, 2001). But, Theis says, separating from the festival meant the art car group had to persuade sponsor Pennzoil and others they would still get their money's worth in publicity.

"We had to convince our sponsors they would get the same value if we did it on our own, and the final piece in that was last year, when after the parade we had a free public party and it drew thousands of people," she says. "We showed we could draw a significant number of people and make the parade a destination on its own. The worry was that the audience wouldn't go downtown just for the Art Car Parade, but we proved last year that they would."

Pennzoil will donate $100,000 to the parade this year; the Wortham Foundation will give $10,000, which should offset the street-closing and police-overtime costs that had previously been picked up by the festival. How to finance a marketing campaign that can no longer piggyback on the festival is still being discussed.

Festival president Jim Austin says he's sorry to see the parade go. "We are the biggest fans in the world of the Art Car Parade," he says. "But when something grows that big, sometimes it has to spin out on its own."

Austin says the news came as a bit of a surprise to festival organizers, who had all but wrapped up planning for the 2003 event with the assumption the Art Car Parade would be a part of it. Theis says her group could not make the switch until they had firmed up the Pennzoil sponsorship, which was delayed by the company's merger with Shell Oil Company.

Austin says the festival will try to come up with other "destination events" in the future, such as visits by famous chefs or authors of whatever country is being celebrated that year.

The festival also will emphasize its musical acts more, he says; this year's April 25-May 4 run will feature Gilberto Gil, Steve Earle and Café Tacuba.

"We need to get people to make multiple visits," he says.

The Art Car Parade will be May 10. Most of it will take place on Allen Parkway, with only a brief bit in downtown, on Bagby Street. The route may change in the future to take in more of downtown, Theis says, but that will have to wait until the current street-construction nightmare ends.

The separation from the festival will mean an easing of some parade rules. Participants had complained that the festival, worried about people watching the parade instead of spending money at booths, had curtailed the event too much.

"Some of those rules make for a better parade," Theis says. "Like not being able to show the same car two years in a row -- that ensures that people are going to see something new. But we are not going to be strict enforcers of a 250-car limit, or having the cars race through to get the parade over as quickly as possible."

Organizers will be making much of the fact that the entire route is now free to spectators, not just the parts outside the festival gates.

"It represents a step back to the more grassroots level that the parade started with," says Art Car Parade coordinator Kim Stoilis. "It will make it easier to get people to rally around the new version of the parade."


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