Revolution in Chrome

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But not everyone approved. Some CAM board members didn't like the museum's scruffy image. Others objected to Harithas's shameless regionalism: If the museum was any good, they asked, why was it showing local artists? What about New York?

Harithas's relationship with the CAM's board of directors was always strained, and the museum never had enough money. He blamed the board; the board blamed him.

Those problems grew worse in June 1976. Heavy rains sent water pouring into the CAM, and in 25 minutes, the lower floor -- a glorified basement used for exhibitions, storage and offices -- was flooded. Harithas says he and his staff went "diving for art," trying to salvage what they could. Luckily firemen cut off the museum's electricity before the staff electrocuted itself.

Some of the wet art was shipped to NASA to be vacuum-dried, and some was placed in freezers at upscale grocery stores. Much of it, though, was beyond repair. The damage, estimated at $1 million, included the CAM's membership records, 15 years of work by Washington, D.C., painter Gil Cautrescasas and some of Harithas's own collection, including works by Lennon and Ono.

The financial hit was nearly more than the struggling museum could bear, and the CAM remained closed for almost a year. When it reopened, Harithas informed reporters that with new funding, the museum would no longer need to focus on Texas artists.

He'd partially renounced his love of regionalism, but he hadn't renounced his rowdy ways. In May of '77 the CAM reopened with a retrospective of Salvatore Scarpitta, an Italian sculptor. Among his works was Rajo Jack, a meticulous replica of the car driven by the first black competitor in Southwest drag racing. It was a bravura exhibition of artistic technique, but more than that, the piece also made a social statement about speed and fury and racism. To Harithas, it was the best kind of art.

In a similar vein, Scarpitta's Lynx was a functional replica of a light desert vehicle from World War II. At the Port of Houston, authorities refused to allow it into the country. Never mind that its surface is intricately painted, they said; it's a weapon, and can be fully mobilized.

Harithas reveled in the controversy. At one point, Joan Mondale, the vice president's wife, helped the CAM lobby the port, but as Harithas tells the story, the work's release had more to do with the head of the port, a former tank commander: "You can't tell me this is a tank," the man said, and Harithas knew then that he was home free. At the CAM, Harithas aimed the tank's guns diagonally across the intersection of Bissonnet and Main -- a declaration of war on the Museum of Fine Arts, and on the forces of bureaucracy and dullness everywhere.

But it was a few months later, in October, that the anarchic spirit of Harithas's era at the CAM crystallized into the single anecdote that everyone remembers. Antoni Miralda, a Spanish artist who specialized in theatrical celebrations, designed one in which 60 Kilgore Rangerettes first danced for the CAM opening crowd, then proceeded to build a 200-foot wall out of loaves of bread dyed red, green and blue.

Someone tore half a loaf from the wall and lobbed it across the room, hitting a woman in the head. The opening turned into a gigantic food fight. Crumbs rained down into the CAM's lower floor. Outside, a fistfight escalated into a general melee. The police broke up the party.

At his house, Harithas still keeps a black-and-white video of the Rangerettes' performance that night. He pops it into the little TV on top of his refrigerator and shakes his head as the drill team executes its trademark high kicks. "That's Texas," he says. "I went Texas."

The shenanigans further strained Harithas's dicey relationship with the museum's board. Harithas argued with the board over finances and aesthetics, and complained that its members didn't understand the museum. They didn't look at the shows, he said; they wouldn't talk to him about the artistic program. In May of '78, furious that the board had discussed hiring a business manager to handle the museum's books, he wrote a hotheaded letter of resignation. After submitting it, he thought better of it and tried to retract it. The board voted to accept it anyway. Harithas was out of a job.

"CAM supporters note cheerily that the museum's image can only go up," wrote Houston Post arts reporter Mimi Crossley. "The recent aesthetic has expressed itself in radical chic exhibitions formulated out of the '60s rebellion against formalism, the establishment and sexual mores." That fall the museum announced a fund-raising concert by jazz pianist Bobby Short, a society favorite; the evening would be smooth, safe and free of risks.

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Lisa Gray