The 5 Compass Art Car Museum in Houston is one-of-a-kind. According to Alicia Duplan, the only other museum on the same subject, turning your car into an attention-getting art object, is an appointment-only ACM in Douglas, Arizona. Houston’s Art Car Museum is both easy to miss and hard to find at 140 Heights Boulevard. Look for a small building with inadequate parking that appears to be a junkyard dinosaur or a cultish worship center. Its nickname is “Garage Mahal”.
In my opinion, the art car movement got underway in the 1960s when a band of drug-loving hippies including some men who went on to become popular writers decorated a school bus, named it Further, and traveled across the country in it. Today, art car creators appear to range from driven yet normal individuals like the man in the film who said that his wife won’t even get into his decorated car to obsessive, somewhat lunatic men like the guy who grew grass all over his car to prove that it could be done. My personal favorite was Button Man. As this museum’s brochure explained, “All art cars are subversive and have in common the transformation of the vehicle from a factory-made commodity into a personal statement or expression.”
The 3 men mentioned above are seen in a movie on continuous view at the Art Car Museum. Until I took the time to watch it, I was having a hard time understanding this obsession. The film’s a slickly made, multi-screen experience that’s a bit like looking into a kaleidoscope for half an hour or so.
The free, not-for-profit Art Car Museum was founded by Ann Harithas and opened in 1998. Alicia, ACM’s Assistant Director, told me that there will always be at least one art car on display along with, perhaps, a couple of classic, undecorated cars like the 1956 Nash Ambassador Ruth & I saw. The Art Car Museum’s walls and floors were also alive with several contemporary sculptures and paintings by 5 working, female artists. Alicia assured me that turnover is both rapid and continuous. I’m unlikely to ever see Nicole Strine’s “Shattered Vanity”, her mirror-covered 1997 Honda Accord, again unless….
Houston is considered the art car capital because it has more of them than any other city. Many are on display in its annual art car parade that is held in April or May. An extravaganza that can feature more than 300 entries, it has become such a big deal that people come from all over to see it. Like Mardi Gras, it grows more important each year.
There appear to be some downsides to turning your old car into an art work. One of them is the impossibility of getting collision insurance.