May 13, 2007
The commercial side of the Art Car Parade

I took Olivia to her first Art Car Parade yesterday. She really enjoyed it, as did I. It's a great event, one of the things that really makes Houston what it is. It's grown phenominally in recent years, and with that has come some concerns about the soul of the event.

[T]e sight of corporate sponsors has some longtime art car supporters worrying that commercialization will take some of the funk out of the traditionally counterculture parade.

"The problem is that any time you have something like this that starts out as an outlaw thing, it's all totally cool and everybody wants to be involved with it 'cause it's cool,'" said Jackie Harris, one of the parade's originators, who drives a vehicle known as the Fruitmobile.

"But then it gets bigger and bigger. It's just like a snowball, and the bigger a snowball gets the more cling-ons you get."

Although the brain child of the art community, Houston's art car parade has steadily gained the attention of businesses big and small. Just up the parade line from the SpawMaxwell vehicle -- after a car shaped like giant tree, one like an underwater monster and another covered in beads -- was a giant, drivable Starbucks cup, paid for by the coffee company, but built by a local artist. Elsewhere in line was a McDonald's car shaped like a shoe, a Bubbles Car Wash Hummer that spews bubbles and, yes, a Houston Chronicle car in the shape of a giant star.

The Ronald McDonald Shoe Car was a bit jarring, I admit. But what the hell. It may have been a lot slicker than most of the homegrown entries, but it can be judged on its own merits. I like the approach that the Orange Show has taken:

These corporate-sponsored art cars have become common enough that this year the Orange Show Center for Visionary Arts, which runs the historically funky event, created a special awards category for them.

"Over the past two to three years there have been these really awesome creative cars that definitely qualify as art cars, but are sponsored by corporations," said Kim Stoilis, artistic director for the organization. "We recognized a need to recognize our sponsors and recognize our artists who are creating these."

Stoilis said organizers like her know they need business support to keep up the event, which started in Houston 20 years ago and has inspired copycat parades nationwide. But they wanted to find a way to reward those companies that really "get it," meaning they make an effort to do something interesting with their cars.

I look at it this way: There's plenty of counterculture, anti-corporatism, and other freestyle acts of nonconformism on display at the Art Car Parade. If the corporate sponsors are comfortable co-existing with that, then it's all good by me. I think the parade has hit a sweet spot in maintaining its viability, adjusting to the reality of its vast popularity, and keeping its soul more or less intact.

All of my Art Car Parade photos can be found here, for those who are interested.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on May 13, 2007 to Elsewhere in Houston