Main Street 1 was the name given to a Salute to the Arts to be held Downtown—a weekend happening of celebrations highlighting the performing and visual arts, on the sidewalks, streets, and store windows located between Dallas and McKinney on Main Street. Sakowitz and Foleys Department Stores, and the Cultural Affairs Committee of the Houston Chamber of Commerce, with Mayor Louie Welch's blessing, sponsored the event. It was the beginning of the cultural salute that grew and evolved into today's Houston International Festival.
Houston's Main Street Art Happening was moved from Downtown (where the City Ordinance prohibited street closings) to the Houston Museum of Fine Arts and its grounds across from the Contemporary Arts Museum, still on Main but now more "mid-town". This attempt at an outdoor-indoor celebration created safety concerns with crowds of pedestrians crossing streets, leading to a subsequent relocation in 1974.
The Art Happening moved to Hermann Park, near the Museum. It was expanded to two weekends to help minimize the risk of inclement weather affecting attendance.
The event was named "The Houston Festival", and remained so for the next ten years. The organizational structure changed, with the creation of The Houston Festival Foundation Inc., a 501 (c)(3) non-profit with its own Board of Directors and budget, separate from the Houston Chamber of Commerce sponsorship. The Foundation remains the producing entity today.
The Festival moved back downtown, this time with two stages across from the Alley Theatre and Jones Hall, at what is now Jones Plaza. Attendance grew but expansion was limited at that site.
The Festival moved to a larger potential site at Market Square, in order to accommodate the growing number of participants and attendees.
The City of Houston signed an Ordinance proclaiming the Houston Festival as an official City-sponsored salute to the visual and performing arts, and permitted the event to expand and locate at the Sam Houston Park area of Downtown Houston.
"Rendezvous Houston," highlighting the anniversaries of Houston and the Texas Sesquicentennial celebrations and one of the biggest events ever staged in Houston, was produced as the centerpiece of the Houston Festival. Lasers and fireworks danced above and around the skyscrapers downtown accompanied by French composer Jean-Michel Jarre's original music compositions. The 1.3 million people in attendance and the national media were all astonished at the event which is still remembered proudly to this day.
However, the costs of producing the event and subsequent financial fallout led to a restructuring of the The Houston Festival Foundation. James Austin, previously director of the Memphis in May festival, was hired in late summer 1986, and he and the Board set out to re-examine the path and future for the Festival. This began the expansion of the basic concepts of the event, adding the now-established education and business collaborations and programs.
The name of the celebration was changed to "The Houston International Festival" to celebrate Houston's role as an international city, highlight its ethnic diversity, and better educate the youth of the Houston in the arts and cultures of other countries. A plan was developed to spotlight the arts and cultures of an individual country or region of the world each year, with assistance from the participating governments at the highest levels possible. At the same time, the festival continued to build more performing stages to ensure presentations of the arts from around the world during the two-week event.
To sharpen the international theme and present new and fresh arts, Australia was the first country of honor, with the international theme showcasing that country's culture and arts -- visual, performing, culinary -- as well as an all-day business conference focusing on Australian and Texan businesses.
Also in 1987, the Houston International Festival, asked the Orange Show Center for Visionary Art to organize a parade to build on the success of the New Music Parade. The Orange Show agreed to produce an event dedicated to art cars. Roadside Attractions: The Art Car Parade was born in April, 1988 with a 40 car parade seen by an estimated 2,000. By the following year, the parade size doubled and the crowd swelled to tens of thousands. Another major milestone was the entry of Rebecca Bass and Edison Middle School in 1990. "The Body Shop" went on to win major awards, and started educators across the city to see art car projects as tools to teach life skills and engage students with their schools and community. This collaboration led to the Art Car Parade becoming a successful, independent event produced by the Orange Show in 2000.
1989 - 2003
The next year continued the new pattern with the spotlight on France, followed by The United Kingdom (1990); Japan (1991); Spain & the New World (1992); Mexico (1993); Italy (1994); Turkey (1995); West Africa (1996); China (1997); Islands of the Caribbean (1998); Southern Africa (1999); Brazil celebrating 500 years (2000); Ireland (2001); and revisits to France in (2002) and Mexico (2003).
During these years, the festival grew into one of Houston’s signature cultural events, with multiple stages in the streets, plazas and parks of downtown Houston showcasing Houston’s multicultural communities as well as the arts and culture of the honored nation.. The annual Mayor’s Gala served as a fundraiser for the festival’s education programs, and each year’s festival opened with an official ribbon-cutting ceremony on the steps of City Hall -- a tradition that still continues.
Over this period, the Houston International Festival came to be popularly known by its shorthand nickname, iFest.
Downtown Houston was in the throes of a major renaissance of urban development and street improvements creating traffic and parking problems. The Houston International Festival moved south to Reliant Park, this time following the tracks of the METRO's new light rail transportation line for better access and more space.
The Houston International Festival honored Thailand at Festival Plaza at Reliant Park. Five Asian elephants joined the programming mix in a special appeal to families, and the open space at Reliant Park allowed for clear sightlines to the major music stages. However, the move from downtown was not well-received by some longtime patrons and media commentators, and the festival was interrupted by rain on parts of both weekends.
2005, 2006, 2007
The Houston International Festival enjoyed a triumphant return to downtown with the spotlight on India in 2005, Jamaica in 2006 and China in 2007. These festivals witnessed the re-introduction of the Living Museum in Upper Sam Houston Park, and the move of the World Stage to the natural amphitheater in Lower Sam Houston Park. The weather cooperated, and the result was three of the most artistically and financially successful festivals in its history.
The Houston International Festival offered a twist to the honored country theme.The theme for iFest 2008, "Out of Africa: the Three Journeys," celebrated the rich history, achievements, contributions and triumphs of African people in Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America, the United States and the rest of the world. The first journey was the story of human origins, the voluntary migration of humanity out of Africa into the rest of the world; the second journey was the forced migration out of Africa due to enslavement and colonialism; and the third journey was the story of post-colonial, independent Africa into the 21st century. The programming encompassed African, Caribbean and African-American art forms.
iFest returned to the honored country theme and revisited the rich culture of Ireland. Ireland is one of the world's most popular and fastest growing tourist destinations and its influence was infused throughout the entire festival from the music and main stages to the educational exhibits.
The Houston International Festival revisited the beautiful countries of the The Caribbean. From art to food to music, the Caribbean was represented well with special nods to Jamaica, The Bahamas, Trinidad & and Tobago. The result was the most successful festival yet in terms of admissions, despite a half day of rain.
The festival followed the adventures of Marco Polo as it celebrated China, India and other cultures of the Silk Road. Houston Festival explorers experienced a cultural journey along the world’s first “internet,” a trade route stretching 5,000 miles across Eurasia and North Africa. An opening night concert featured the Kronos Quartet performing with musicians from Afghanistan, and the festival’s Center Stage featured Chinese acrobats, Indian dancers and the National Dance Company of Azerbaijan.
In November of 2010, James Austin retired after 25 years as president and CEO of the Houston Festival Foundation. In September of 2011, Kim Stoilis, former executive director of the Bayou City Arts Festival and Artistic Director of the Orange Show Center for Visionary Art where she produced the Art Car Parade, was hired as the new president and CEO.
The spotlight was on Argentina, only the second time the festival has honored a South American nation. It proved to be a popular choice, with world-class tango in front of City Hall on Center Stage and a Buenos Aires street scene in the Living Museum. The popular iFest Lounge offered music fans shaded reserved seating in the World Stage area. An opening night concert in the Hobby Center, Eternal Tango, replaced the Mayor’s Gala as the festival’s annual upscale fundraiser.