A Debacle Chronicled In Kitsch

HOUSTON -- This city, already rich in museums and art galleries, got a new mini-gallery last week: an exhibit of commemorative plaques, T-shirts and expensive gewgaws from Enron Corp.

At a coffee bar.

In a building occupied largely by Enron.

"Enron: A Term of Art (1995-2000)'' is drawn from the collections of current and former employees of what was formerly one of the word's most admired companies. And anyone who says the age of irony is over has missed the post-Enron age.

The names given to each objet d'kitsch provide wry commentary: A bovine statuette is titled "A Bunch of Bull'' and a framed copy of the 2000 annual report is entitled "It Takes Skill[ing?] to Decipher.''

Particularly striking is a "deal toy'' commemorating a transaction involving the company's paper trading business. It is a small dome filled with shredded money and entitled "Not a Shred of Evidence.''

The objects show the company's almost fetishistic affection for trinkets, toys and plaques. There is a large bolt on a wooden base, produced after a $2.6 billion pipeline deal in 2001; and a voodoo figure distributed at a 1999 Enron legal conference in New Orleans.

An Enron T-shirt parodies the company's ever-changing organizational charts, with the title "Enron's Formula for Success,'' and boxes labeled "Lots of Boxes,'' "Lots of Arrows,'' "Lots of Luck'' and "Structure and Lots of $$.''

The idea for the exhibit arose among current and former employees of the company who met regularly at a local watering hole, said Drew Crispin, owner of the Coffee Bar in 3 Allen Center. The group was laughing about the fact that many Enron objects had appeared on eBay and were fetching high prices, and jokes began to fly about what a "museum of bankruptcy'' might look like.

After they scrounged through their closets and garages for a few days, the parody exhibit was born. "It was like the old Mickey Rooney movies -- let's put on a show!'' Crispin said.

Most visitors are amused, though one older gentleman, noted Crispin, "said 'harrumph' and walked away.'' Many customers go back into the Enron offices and return with friends.

Crispin, who is an Enron shareholder, said this was not his first foray into social commentary. "I did it back in the '60s,'' he said, "but I don't remember much of that.''