You've never seen so many beer cans. A million happy Texans partied here last weekend. Their pickups clogged the Katy Freeway, their bodies packed the parks. They'd come downtown to celebrate the annual Houston Festival, the Texas Sesquicentennial, and a gaudy light-and-sound show, Jean-Michel Jarre's "Rendezvous Houston: A City in Concert," the festival's finale. His electronic music droned from a hundred thousand radios, his corny colored slides (bucking broncos, oil wells) lit up the city's glass-sheathed towers, fireworks exploded, lasers swept the skies. Jarre's show, although Texas-sized, was hokey and chaotic. But the party was terrific. It had been going on all day.

At 11 a.m. a smiling, blue jean-clad John Cage had introduced "Ryoanji" -- a new piece rich with whoops and thunks and graceful falls of sound -- to the diamond-and-Mercedes crowd that had gathered for the opening of the $3.5 million Lillie and Hugh Roy Cullen Sculpture Garden at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts. Isamu Noguchi, 82, the sculptor who designed the place, with its granite paths and grassy mounds and 99 young trees, complained that the new David Smith (just purchased for $2 million) had been put in the wrong place, and that Matisse's four bronze backs were a bit too close together, but he otherwise seemed pleased.

"My garden," said Noguchi, "is walled and yet not walled, is closed as well as open. I think of it as a sculpture, and as a site for sculpture, as a site-specific sculpture, and a sculpture-specific site."

"It doesn't look at all like the model," said sculptor Mark Di Suvero.

"Thank you," said Noguchi.

The guests who thronged the paths were served raspberries in champagne.

At noon, Kathy Whitmire, who is both the mayor of Houston and the chairwoman of the committee on arts, culture and recreation of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, gave a luncheon for her colleagues at the Davis/McClain Gallery, one of seven art shops in an urban strip designed by Arquitectonica, the chic Miami architects. The pictures on the walls were new ones by Sam Gilliam. Lots of them had sold.

Now it's true that Houston's oil rich were a whole lot richer when West Texas crude went for $40 a barrel. And it is also true that "The Emerald City," Houston's shiny core, is scrambling for tenants. (Of the 35.5 million square feet of office space in the central business district, 6.8 million are empty now.) Sure, 10-buck oil hurts. But in at least one civic realm Houston's doing fine.

"The town goes up and down," said Gilliam's dealer Bob McClain. "I've seen fortunes made and lost here. I know a guy -- he used to be a salesman at Al's Formal Wear -- who got into oil trading and made a million in six months. He doesn't have it anymore. Another man I know made $20 million in one year. The next year he lost $90 million. That's the way it goes. The orchestra is going broke, and houses are not moving. But art is doing fine. Last year was the best year that we've ever had."

"Art matters," said the mayor. "It attracts business -- and we're diversifying our economy. It attracts tourists -- and we're building a convention center. Even in these times of difficult economics, you won't see a reduction in our commitment to the arts."

The parade appeared at 2 p.m. It made a lot of noise. Among its odd attractions were cars that looked like tanks, and Houston's Urban Animals, a band of long-legged roller skaters, some tugged along by dogs. The parade was held to celebrate New Music America 1986, a citywide festival. The Animals are serious folk; their motto: Skate or Die.

To read the eastern press ("the gloating eastern press," is the way Houstonians describe it) you'd think the town was dying, or at least sick at heart: "Oil Recession Plunges Houston Into a State of Mental Depression," gloats The Wall Street Journal. Time magazine detects "A Pain Deep in the Heart of Texas," and Evans and Novak sympathize, a bit, with the "melancholia engulfing the Oil Patch of Texas."

I'm so tired of that boom-city-goes-bust stuff," said Joanne Adams of the mayor's staff. "We've been hearing it for years. Sure we took a real big hickey in '82-'83. But corporate support for the arts hasn't diminished. If you don't think art is doing well in Houston, just look around."

A visitor from Washington who wanders through this city's galleries and gardens, exhibits and museums, receives a rain of de'ja vus.

It's not just the Gilliams admired by the mayor; it's not just that Jarre's lasers seemed cartoons of Rockne Krebs'. Houston is as proud of its best-known local artists (James Surls, John Alexander) as Washington was once of its Color Painters. Barnett Newman's "Broken Obelisk," by Houston's Rothko Chapel, once stood outside the Corcoran. Last month's Houston "Foto Fest" offered 63 exhibits: The photo scene is booming here, and that's familiar, too.

D.C and Houston do not look alike (Houston has no zoning, few sidewalks and few hills), and neither does their art (Houston's is untamed). But the art scene here in many ways calls to mind the pre-Hirshhorn, pre-WPA, pre-Kennedy Center, pre-East Building Washington of 15 years ago.

Remember how Washington was changed by I.M. Pei's East Building? The analogue in Houston is the new museum (it's a lot less monumental, but comparably impressive) now being built to house the superb, still largely secret, art collection formed by the late John de Menil and his widow Dominique.

Together they assembled three separate collections -- one of antiquities from the paleolithic era through the time of Christ, a second of tribal objects, and a third of modern art from van Gogh to the present. The new building that will house all this was designed by Renzo Piano, one of the architects responsible for the Centre Pompidou in Paris. It will open to the public in 1987.

Its materials are white concrete, white steel and gray cedar. Its modesty is grand. The new Menil Collection does not fight at all with the quiet wooden houses of its residential neighborhood. Its galleries suggest a kind of cross between a workshop and a home. They are filled with silver light.

Remember how the Washington art scene was energized and altered by the WPA? Houston's Diverse Works is as busily chaotic. Washington's John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts opened in 1971. Houston's -- it's called the Gus S. Wortham Theater Center -- is a $70 million structure now under construction, and scheduled to open late in 1987. The George R. Brown Convention Center will open the same year. Noguchi's sculpture garden, with its Calders, Di Suveros, Matisses and Rodins, though not yet full of art, recalls the Hirshhorn's on the Mall.

Something else in Houston brings Washington to mind.

It was once thought that New York, or at least people trained there, ruled the art scenes in the provinces. But that's the case no longer. In Houston -- and not in Houston only, but in other parts of Texas -- the folks who run museums come from Washington, D.C.

*Peter C. Marzio, 42, who used to run the Corcoran, is now the director of the Museum of Fine Arts. Since he took the job in October 1982, Houston's main museum has done very well indeed. Marzio has elegantly reinstalled its permanent collection, acquired (for $4.5 million) a next-door city block for eventual expansion, and calmed down the trustees. In 1981-82, the Museum of Fine Arts had an operating deficit of $488,961; in 1983-84, Marzio's first year, it showed a surplus of $231,062 (and, despite the recession, is still in the black). Membership (521,678 in 1982) has increased by 300,000.

The operating budget ($5,749,230 in 1981-82) will this year exceed $9 million. And under Marzio's regime, 2,326 objects have entered the collection. These include a $1 million David Smith, a half-million-dollar Jasper Johns, a $2 million Chardin, and a complete set of "The Americans," photographs by Robert Frank.

Marzio concedes that raising cash in Houston is now tougher than it once was, but things aren't half as bleak as pessimists believe. Foundations are still giving (that is, after all, their job), and the stock market is booming. In 1982, the museum had an endowment of $29,336,925. It's now $71 million.

"The thing to remember is that taxes here are very low," said Marzio. "For social services, for community welfare, Texas ranks about 46th among the 50 states. But the people who support us have been extremely generous. Texans hate the tax man. They like to direct their cash themselves."

*Walter Hopps, who took charge of the old Washington Gallery of Modern Art in 1967, and of the Corcoran the next year, has directed Houston's Menil Collection since 1980. Dominique de Menil, whose money comes from Schlumberger, the drilling-services company, though not as rich as she once was, retains more than enough to see to the completion of her new $25 million museum. Neil Printz, the Menil Collection's research curator, is another former Washingtonian. He used to work with Hopps at the old National Collection of Fine Arts (now the National Museum of American Art).

"Sure the oil folk are worried," Hopps agrees. "When I hear them panic I think of Hollywood in the '50s -- when the movie people trembled about the arrival of TV."

*Marti Mayo, who used to work at the Jefferson Place Gallery on P Street NW, and who then became the Corcoran's exhibition coordinator, is now curator and second-in-command at Houston's Contemporary Arts Museum. The CAM, a kind of Texas kunsthalle (it doesn't collect, but only exhibits) is just across the street from the Mies van der Rohe-designed Museum of Fine Arts. James Harithas, another former Corcoran director, once ran the CAM.

"It's true, everybody's here," says Mayo. "We're sometimes called the Washington Mafia."

*Caroline Huber, a Washington sculptor who used to work at the Middendorf Gallery, is now director of fine arts at Houston's Diverse Works. Huber and sculptor Martin Puryear, another former Washingtonian, were both members of the jury that selected this year's Buffalo Bayou show, an outdoor sculpture exhibition in Houston's largest public park. Of the six works now in place there, the one by Lenore Winters is the most successful. She, too, is a Washingtonian. Her "Labyrinth" includes nine white man-size objects (they look like pyramids and blades, breaking waves and prows) and a quarter of a mile of undulating hedge.

Many are the scholars and many are the artists who have learned to make the journey between Washington and Houston. Exhibits travel, too.

"The Indelible Image: Photographs of War -- 1846 to the Present," one of the most impressive shows displayed during Houston's Foto Fest, was organized, in Washington, by the Corcoran's Frances Fralin (her traveling exhibition will open at the Corcoran on April 29). "Art in New Mexico, 1900-1925: Paths to Taos and Santa Fe," now at Washington's National Museum of American Art, will be traveling the other way. The Houston Museum of Fine Arts here will show it in the fall.

George Shackelford of the MFA was the curator responsible for "Degas: The Dancers," a recent exhibition at the National Gallery of Art. The show of Leonardo's horse drawings from Windsor Castle, which opened at the National Gallery, and the National Gallery's display of Woodland Indian art, in turn went to Houston. So did the Phillips Collection's exhibition of late pictures by Georges Braque. And that transcontinental traffic is not about to cease. In 1987, the Houston Museum of Fine Arts will mount a major exhibition of "Hispanic Art in the United States." The curators responsible are Jane Livingston and John Beardsley of the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

The Texas-Washington connection is not confined to Houston. Three museums in Fort Worth are also run by scholars with strong Washington connections.

Jan Keene Muhlert, director of Fort Worth's Amon Carter Museum, used to work in Washington at the National Collection of Fine Arts. Ruth Carter Stevenson of Fort Worth heads the Collectors' Committee of the National Gallery of Art, and her husband, John R. Stevenson, is the chairman of the National Gallery's board. The director of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Edmund P. Pillsbury, who has also worked at the National Gallery, took his job in Texas after serving as director of Paul Mellon's Yale Center for British Art.

The most recent immigrant from Washington, or perhaps he should be called a Texas-returnee, is E.A. Carmean Jr., director of the Fort Worth Art Museum. Carmean worked at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston from 1971 to 1974, and then spent 10 years in Washington as curator of 20th-century art at the National Gallery. Since moving back to Texas last July, he has acquired for his museum 18 canvases by Morris Louis, the Washington Color Painter. They went on view on Friday. And Carmean's senior curator, Diane Upright, is another former Washingtonian who arranged exhibits for the Phillips Collection and the National Collection of Fine Arts.

"Easterners," says Marzio, "always oversimplify Texas." Carmean agrees: "There is much more here than oil. My museum gets $1 million a year from the Tandy Foundation. The Kimbell family sold feed. If you wanted to feed your cow in Texas, you went to Kay Kimbell. Texas doesn't get pessimistic. This isn't a different state. It's a different country."