Curbside Travelogue: Yes, There Really is an Art Car Museum

In his article detailing the zaniness of Houston’s annual Art Car parade Jon Stephenson notes that his city is also home to an Art Car museum. Well, it took me three and a half years, but I can finally attest that in addition to many its other museum wonders, Houston is indeed home to not one, but essentially two, Art Car museums.  And I have the pictures to prove it.

Each year, for about the past decade, I take a long weekend trip to reconnect with a group of friends that I’ve been fortunate to know since the mid 1970s. We all initially met in high school in the Washington, DC area (although a few of these folks have known each other since 2nd grade!!) and over the past half century we have drifted to live in various places across the US and beyond. What used to be regular opportunities to simply meet up for dinner, walks or movies became increasingly impossible to do as work and families pulled us to places such as Boston, Seattle, Los Angeles, Chicago, Guatemala City, and for one of us several months a year in Antarctica. So as to preserve some sense of connection and face-to-face interaction, we now try to gather once a year in some centrally-located spot, relatively easily accessible for a long weekend. As one might guess, Texas turns out to have fit the bill more than twice over the decade given its temperate south-central location – a bonus in the late fall when this trip occurs – and plethora of airline connections. Having already been to Austin and San Antonio, this year Houston came up as the destination.

You should also probably know that the primary activities of this group when left to our own unencumbered devices (which is sort of the whole point of this annual weekend) are eating and going to museums.  Restaurants, cooking, and museums.  It’s pretty much what these six guys have been doing together for 50 years – growing up in DC probably cemented the museum thing – and fortunately we still like to do it.

Not that there’s anything wrong with hiking, biking, rural areas, and/or taking long road trips (all of which many of us do on our own), but when we gather, it’s all about the food and the museums.

We’ll deal with the museums here.  Mostly, although the restaurants were worth a passing mention…by me as well as the New York Times.

A dawn flight out of Boston eventually took me to Houston, with “only” a three-hour connection in Charlotte…a city that I had actually driven to from Massachusetts less than a month ago. That’s another good auto-centric story which I’ll write up eventually, but let’s just say that there was no time (or unfortunately, need) for me to visit any North Carolina junk yards this time. Instead, on this day there was just enough time to put in some computer time working and eating in the Amex lounge and then back on a plane, onward to Texas.

An early 1970s New Yorker hubcap, if I’m not mistaken. At first I thought it was the same as what was on the Town and Country of my youth, but as a 1971, that would have had a one-year distinctive hubcap. Close to this, but not quite. Same lovely Chrysler font.


There, I connected with the first of my friends who arrived a couple of hours ahead of me and had encamped at the “Hubcap Bar” to await me and my rental car reservation.

I’m often disappointed by the feeble attempts that airport establishments make to connect to their local culture, so it was actually kind of refreshing to find this George Bush Intercontinental Airport establishment tossing aside all local connection and instead focusing on more relevant things such as stuff that had simply fallen off of cars. (I’m pretty sure, by the way, that they named the airport “Intercontinental” largely because it would be difficult for its namesake – bless his art-loving soul – to pronounce correctly. /JK)

We were on a roll.

I’m not even sure how that would be possible, but thankfully I was warned.

After meeting another friend at his gate, we then retrieved the rental. No squeezing what would ultimately be six of us into anything like the hooptie Darts, Corollas, Pintos, or tiny Fiats we would have motivated around in 45 years ago. Nope, we’re traveling upright in geezer/toddler comfort within a vehicle that most of the passengers announced as being “Incredibly f***in’ big!”.  Let’s just say that this is not a crowd that currently or has ever owned/driven SUVs, and all of whom (aside from me) managed somehow to avoid minivans during the child-rearing years.  So naturally I’m driving, and took more than one opportunity to showcase my still-existent ability to parallel park a van (albeit now with glances at the new-fangled backup camera that was 10 years away from being standard equipment when I last regularly piloted one of these things). My friends kept themselves busy trying to figure out how to operate the apparently very confusing rear doors. It had something to do with push buttons.

And possibly beer.

For a moment there, I was wondering if I had hit the jackpot and that this particular van had the school bus/transport package.

The 2023 Pacifica pretty much rode and drove like the big white appliance that it is. It was an incredibly neutral vehicle that did “ok” on the highway as well as around town. After three days with it, I had no complaints other than my typical gripes around ergonomics. The display on CarPlay was difficult to read due to what seemed to be tiny font-choices, and the use of a knob/dial to select gears was an oddity that I’ve never before encountered in a vehicle. That took some time getting used to as I kept reaching for a non-existent gear selector lever. I alternatively grasped air with my right hand searching for a column shift or hovering over the invisible mechanism on the non-existent center console.

I hope to live long enough so that in future years I might be similarly grasping air in a vain attempt to find the the non-existent steering wheel.

Houston’s Art Car Museum is free, although donations are encouraged and it’s strongly suggested that phone-ahead reservations be made.  I managed to do both, and in the process discovered that the Art Car Museum is kinda-sorta related to two other Houston outsider-art attractions. I didn’t make it to the Orange Show or the Beer Can House but have those on my list for future visits.

The Art Car Museum was founded by Ann and James Harithas.  Details on the museum’s own website are a bit sketchy in that under the site’s “About Us” link, the authors seem more interested in offering a “manifesto” about the automobile’s place in American society than any concrete factual information about the museum. If you’ve got a minute, that manifesto deserves a read. Whether one agrees with it or not, it’s quite the piece of work.

So as far as unearthing details on how the Art Car Museum came to be, Wikpedia is your friend. Here, one learns that the Harithas’ were apparently movers and shakers in Houston’s vibrant outsider/avant garde art scene. Jim, originally from Maine, actually came to Houston after career starts in the more or less traditional art world. Among other things, he was a curator at the DeCordova museum here in Massachusetts, and also ultimately Director of the (now closed) Corcoran Gallery of Art in D.C.  Souring on the traditional art world and enlivened by the social politics of the late 1960s, Jim decamped first to NYC and then later Houston where he focused on contemporary art (with a continued heavy dose of political content).  Ann and Jim married in 1978, and 20 years later founded the Art Car Museum.

Although the Art Car Museum was Ann and Jim’s joint effort, it seems that the museum is more credited to Ann than Jim. It’s a guess, but that may be due to the fact that Ann was more of a producing artist than Jim (Jim devoted his energies to curation and organizing) and she was also a well-resourced native Texan with deep local connections.  At any rate, Ann seemed to make the Art Car Museum her personal project from its founding until her death in 2021. Jim passed in March of 2023.

It’s noted that Ann also created a similar museum in her hometown of Victoria, TX. The Five Points Museum of Contemporary Art is housed in a former Lincoln Mercury dealership and is rumored to have an art car collection of its own. The lady clearly had a thing for cars.

At the time of my visit, immediately following the November 1 – 2 Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration, the Art Car Museum had an altar commemorating Ann. As is traditional for these altars, this one contained photographs, mementos, and various small artworks celebrating the individual being commemorated.

Ann’s altar contained this most excellent giant crucifix constructed from Hot Wheels cars. But perhaps the greatest honor accorded to Ann’s memory was the museum-wide exhibit of her unique collage art.  The museum staff stated that this exhibit was in fact the first official exhibit of Ann’s own work anywhere.  Her art actually stood out much more than the art cars on exhibit.  I’ve included one of her works below as sadly the rather quirky (aka, “Zany!”) Art Car Museum website doesn’t actually much of her work on the page devoted to the exhibition of her work.

But first, the cars.

There were only three cars on display on the day I went to the museum.  Here are two in the main gallery.

I readily admit being pretty ineffective around identifying pre (and immediately post) WWII-era cars.  As far as I can tell, this originally was a 1948 (but that’s a guess) Plymouth that has had added grill-work reminiscent of an earlier-model Plymouth.

The artwork is quite crisp and professional.

Of course, I mostly enjoyed original detail such as the Mayflower center light on the trunk.

Beyond a few key accents, it’s pretty clear that this Plymouth has been resto-modded nearly beyond recognition.  Then again, the point of this car isn’t historical accuracy as much as being a rolling canvas for its artist.

A similar approach around the artwork was undertaken for Ann’s personal 1976 Sedan DeVille.  This car was essentially stock except for artwork on the hood and trunk, and a kind of southwestern-inspired (non stock) upholstery job. The hood art is a tribute to the Laredo, TX artist César Augusto Martinez.  In fact, this is a version of his 2003 piece “Hombre que le Gustan las Mujeres” (“The Man Who Likes Women”). It certainly would appear so.

This 4th generation Monte Carlo rounded out the Art Car Museum’s current exhibit and represented a mild version (as we will soon see) of the “glue as much stuff as you can onto it” school of art car fabrication.  Frankly, this one sort of creeped me out as the objects glued onto this car consisted largely of alligator heads, skulls, horns, plastic ducks, bunnies and crabs.  The whole thing was covered with a thick brown glaze that seemed to emulate mud, or something worse.

It really looks like something got sick back there.

Though I will say that I did like the hood ornament.  Someone’s girlfriend for sure. A bright spot in all of that…stuff.

Pigtails – Ann Harithas, 2010. Digital print on plexiglass and painted canvas.


As promised, before moving on, here’s one of several Harithas works that were sort of eye-catching. This definitely captured the gist of her work as exhibited.

I was rather disappointed that there were only three art cars at the Art Car Museum.  There are quite a few photos of previously-exhibited cars on the website, and I asked the museum staff if there were in fact more cars in the collection that were perhaps rotated in and out due to space limitations.  The answer was not terribly clear to me, but it essentially seems that the museum really doesn’t have a “collection” as much as parking space for art cars from the Houston community that are showcased on a rotating basis.  Thus, aside from the three cars, the Ann Harithas exhibit, and various metal sculptures outside the building, that was it for the Art Car Museum.

As I was leaving the museum, the staff person mentioned that there were more art cars on display elsewhere in the city.  Really?  Indeed, on the grounds of the Saint Arnold brewery.  Well, that was good news since several of us had intended to get over to Saint Arnold on our last night before heading out of town.

Billed as “Texas’ Oldest Craft Brewery”, the Saint Arnold brewing company is named after a first century Frankish bishop, earliest named ancestor of Charlemegne, and political opponent of Queen Brunhilda (She of Nibelungenlied fame. “Oh Bwroonhiiiiilda, you’re so wuuubley!“).  He’s also said to be the Patron Saint of Brewing.  So there’s that.

I believe that’s Arnold back there on the rock.  Living big with his sultry/yeasty muses.

And the squirrels.

The squirrels helped balance the 70’s Van Art vibe of the brewery interior.

If this tree’s a rockin’, don’t come a knockin’.

Beer muses aside, the real fun at St. Arnold is the giant outside beer garden where we enjoyed several pints as the extraordinarily friendly locals tried to explain football to me. They eventually gave up and thankfully switched to a topic around which I could make some connection…the wonders of deep-frying a Thanksgiving turkey.  Not that I’ve ever – or will ever – do this.  But, cooking, you know? I have to respect that.

Post-beer, we went in search of the art cars and that search did not disappoint.  For the most part these were examples of the cars similar to those that participate in Houston’s annual parade. This skeleton riding a pickup was excellent, even if I cannot quite grasp what the underlying truck is/was. Mazda?

The encrusting is strong with this one, although the base car is easy to identify from the grill and wheels. That appears to be a sculpture of Jimmy Hendrix on the left rear of the roof.  There are other things on the car too.

Uh huh.

Which brings us to the most mysterious car found in Saint Arnold’s collection.  This car was done up as a tribute to the band Earth Wind and Fire. (Go on, click…it’s only just about the greatest song ever! Well, except for this one.) I only know that because the words “Earth Wind and Fire” appear over the car’s windshield. Beyond that, this thing is a total mystery.

OK, to be honest, there was a printed description for this one that thankfully did identify the underlying car.  But this thing is such a glorious mess that I’m going to ask readers to hazard guesses in the comments. What do you think it is/was? I can assure you that you’d have an even harder time telling if I provided more pictures (although I’ll add them in the comments if folks get entirely stumped after a while).

Here’s a clue.  It’s a brand that’s no longer in existence, but it didn’t go out of existence all that very long ago. Oh, and I owned one. But not this one, thank goodness.

The rest of cars in Saint Arnold’s collection were of the painted but not encrusted variety.  The Bentley (rhd) still looked very much like a Bentley.  If it were a Rolls, then it would be a bit evocative of John Lennon’s Phantom V or the Grey Poupon mustard cars, except it would be beer that was passed between the two Richie Riches.

This 1959 convertible is the same one shown from the front, and on the street, in Jon’s article about the Art Car parade.


Their 1959 Cadillac convertible still looks very Cadillac-like.  I could even make an argument for this being a better color scheme than original.  That’s one heck of a big canvas.

As I was leaving the parking shed, I was passed by a late model Ferrari 812 that I can only hope will one day be given the art car treatment.

As long as they leave the engine alone, it will certainly be among the faster art cars produced.  The driver waved at me as I was taking his photo.  That V12 sure sounded nice as he revved it going through the exhibit.

OK, so maybe he gets enough attention even without gluing beads and plastic crabs all over his ride.

Houston has its charms, that’s for sure. I think that with a little digging I could uncover even more auto enthusiasm than I did on this very short visit.  For example, I could get a better picture of, and maybe a little insight into, the history the Mario & Luigi garage.

Next time.

Meanwhile, I’ll leave the city with the image of very nicely kept 1964 (?) CK1500 that I found on my drive to the airport. The washing machine in the bed confirms that this old truck is still working. The bright orange color (tempered in this photo by the tint on the Pacifica’s windshield) indicates that the owner isn’t someone who wants to blend in and instead wants to stand out in his own particular way.

As I passed, I could tell that the a little older than me cowboy-hatted driver…delivering an appliance for family, or maybe the rental houses he owns…clearly marches to his own beat and drives to his own rhythm.

Pretty much like Houston in general and very much as we might all aspire to do.

In this article, I have given short shrift to the “many other museum wonders” mentioned in my initial paragraph.  By all means, if you find yourself near Houston, you owe it to yourself to visit the Menil Collection (and in particular, the Rothko Chapel) and the Museum of Fine Arts.  All of which I could actually write their own 3000 word articles with photos about…if this were Museumside Classic.  Just visit.  You’ll be glad you did.