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Autry Center expansion plans: L.A. says, 'Not so fast, pardner'

July 1, 2009 |  4:45 pm

AutryMuseumThe Autry National Center got corralled at least temporarily on Tuesday in its bid for a $96-million expansion of its Museum of the American West in Griffith Park.

A panel of five City Council members — faced with a polite crowd of more than 200 people divided between those with “Yes!” decals urging approval of the Autry’s plans and others with multicolored paper “S.O.S.” buttons, for “Save Our Southwest” — voted unanimously to delay a decision for four weeks. It urged the Autry to provide legal assurances by then that the Southwest Museum of the American Indian in Mount Washington won't become just an afterthought to a larger, more comprehensive Griffith Park facility. 

One of the core objections to the expansion comes from a group of neighbors of the Autry-owned Southwest Museum who deeply distrust the Autry’s motives. They fear that it wants to strip the Southwest of its collection — a trove of Native American artifacts — so the Autry can provide a one-stop  Griffith Park experience involving cowboys, Indians and all the other players in the history of the West. The expansion in Griffith Park would include a new section for exhibiting Native American objects.

The Autry, named for singing cowboy Gene Autry, took charge of the financially tottering Southwest in 2003 in a merger that allayed fears that its collection might be sent elsewhere and thereby be lost to L.A. Except for the museum store, open on weekends, the Southwest has been closed since 2006 as it awaits repairs.


Autry officials, who have raised $136 million in a $185-million campaign that also aims to bolster the endowment and cover operating expenses, had hoped on Tuesday to get the first of a number of regulatory green lights they’ll need from the city to enlarge their existing building and add another. It would increase its space in Griffith Park from 110,000 to 189,000 square feet.

Instead, the panel agreed with Councilman Jose Huizar, whose district includes the Southwest Museum, that the Autry should make a legally binding commitment to keep the Southwest as a fully functioning museum. The council members asked Huizar to negotiate a written agreement with the Autry that would be part of any approval, while including community groups in the discussions.

The panel, chaired by Janice Hahn, was sitting as a “board of referred powers,” essentially pinch-hitting for the Board of Recreation and Parks commissioners. That group normally would have heard the proposal but was excused because its chairman is a retired partner in the law firm representing the Autry.

At issue: whether to approve the project's Environmental Impact Report and amend the $1-a-year lease the Autry has on 13 acres in the park.

Addressing his fellow council members, Huizar said that in spending $7.5 million to begin fixing the Southwest Museum's nearly 100-year-old buildings and conserve damaged or deteriorated artifacts in its collection, the Autry has proved its good intentions. But he urged a further step: sealing its commitment in “a binding legal document.”

Huizar said a memo that the Autry’s president, John Gray, sent him two years ago agreeing to most of what Southwest supporters want would serve as a basis for the coming talks. But he said any agreement needs to be more specific about some issues, such as spelling out the scope of exhibitions at the Southwest and requiring a master plan for its future by the end of this year.

In endorsing Huizar’s call for a legal guarantee for the Southwest, the council panel rejected a key point argued by attorneys for the Autry: that the nuts and bolts of the Griffith Park proposal should be the only issue considered, with discussion of the Southwest’s future irrelevant to the project.

“I don’t think this project can move forward unless both museums are on an equal footing,” Councilman Bernard C. Parks said, while Councilman Tony Cardenas said he supported firm legal safeguards for the Southwest by invoking the history of broken 19th century treaties that Native Americans signed with the U.S. government: “Almost every single one of them wasn’t adhered to.”

Interviewed after the vote, Gray said he was concerned about the possibility of city officials “dictating to a  museum what programs should be” in its facilities. “Museums have to create what is going to attract the larger public,” he said.

JohnGray“There’s no doubt” that the Griffith Park expansion will benefit the public, Gray said, “and there’s no doubt about our commitment to the Southwest Museum,” which he said would keep more than half its collection on site while the rest is housed in Griffith Park. He said two galleries at the Southwest would be dedicated to rotating shows from its collection, with two others housing temporary exhibits.

The Autry's Web page on the Southwest would seem to leave room for doubt, however: “The goal,” it says, is “moving most of the collection to a new, state-of-the-art home,” then reopening the Southwest Museum’s galleries “for a new cultural use” in keeping with its founding mission.

During the hearing, which had to be moved from a smaller room to the City Council chambers to accommodate the crowd, some Native American speakers had urged approval of the Autry National Center’s plan.

"Take this into consideration from the Indian people themselves: that we are very supportive of this,” said Paula Starr, executive director of the Southern California Indian Center, a cultural and social service organization. Phil Hale, the Indian Center’s education director, said the expanded Autry would afford “a perfect opportunity for us Indian people to express ourselves ... to help the nonnative community to come and experience as much as they can about native culture and native history.”

Daniel Wright, a member of an anti-expansion group, Friends of the Southwest Museum Coalition, raised the specter of a lawsuit over whether spending nearly $100 million to enlarge the Griffith Park museum without securing the Southwest’s future violates the terms of the 2003 merger agreement.

Gray, the Autry president, said in an interview that it’s been clear for a long time that opponents from the Friends group have been gearing up for a lawsuit against the expansion. Asked whether he's worried about a replay of the J. Paul Getty Trust’s bid to renovate and expand the Getty Villa near Malibu — a project delayed for nearly 2 1/2 years because of a suit over its effect on neighboring homeowners — Gray said, “the Autry will do everything we can to keep building this.”

This case is different: The Autry’s Mount Washington opponents are eager to have a busy museum in their midst. If nothing else, Councilwoman Hahn said, the hearing disproved any notion that “the love of museums does not exist in Los Angeles as it does in other great cities.”

— Mike Boehm

Related stories:

A union of cowboys and Indians

Southwest Museum's future at heart of tussle

Natural look planned for Autry museum

Top photo: Model of a renovated and expanded Autry museum in Griffith Park; credit: Brenda Levin & Associates Architects. Middle: Southwest Museum; credit: Damian Dovarganes/Associated Press. Bottom: Autry Center President John Gray and Brenda Strauss inspect Native American textiles at Southwest Museum; credit: Al Seib/Los Angeles Times

Comments () | Archives (16)

As a member of the the Steering Committee of the Friends of the Southwest Museum, I want to express appreciation for the Times' coverage today of this controversy which is quite heartfelt on both sides of the issue. I would clarify that the Friends of the Southwest Museum Coalition, about 70 organizations, including 10 neighborhood councils, are not just "the neighbors" of the Southwest Museum. Our Coalition stretches across the state with the California Preservation Foundation and across the nation with Route 66 - Mother Road organization.

Additionally, our position is more subtle and sensitive to Autry's needs than hinted in your otherwise good coverage. The Coalition is not "anti-expansion" of the Autry Museum in Griffith Park. We recognize that a vibrant future for the Autry Museum includes the ability to update its 20-year old building.

Our objection is focused on the proposed construction of more than 20,000 square feet of exhibition space to render the spectacular National Register Southwest Museum redundant. As Autry management stubbornly refuses to agree to a condition to assure the vitality of the Southwest Museum in the place where it was envisioned and built by Charles Fletcher Lummis, there is reasonable alarm that the Autry's true intention is to take the Southwest's collection and then abandon the building, give it away, or perhaps sell it and gobble that money up too. So the objection to the expansion is focused on the unnecessary replacement of the Southwest's exhibition spaces in a monolithic building which is being marketed as only the "Autry National Center" or "the Autry." Autry said in the merger that it was there to help, but it appears to be merely helping itself.

And, we are not opposed to storage of the Southwest's deep and broad collections off the Mt. Washington campus. However, we share the concerns of many Griffith Park advocates that consumption of precious parkland for collection storage may not be in the public interest. In our nation's capital, the Smithsonian Institution has many differently branded museums that exhibit their collections on the National Mall yet collection storage and conservation is conducted in storage facilities in Maryland -- outside the precious parkland of our nation's capital.

We recommended examination of collections management on flat parcels of land along Marmion Way, on a street at the foot of the Southwest Museum, as a logical project alternative that does not consume parkland for mere artifact storage. The Autry's EIR consultants refused to even discuss this alternative in the EIR.

Now that Councilmember Huizar says he wants the enforceable protective project condition we have sought for six long years, litigation may be avoided. The size of the crowd in City Hall chambers and standing in the aisles is testimony that, contrary to what some people say, history and our cultural heritage are important to Los Angelenos. City Council members agreed and the Autry's selfish plan was set aside yesterday.

Great information!!
Thanks for sharing.

Readers should read the Times article from December 2002 at the time of the Southwest Museum merger "Union of Cowboys and Indians" where the LA Times was led to believe that the Autry had a $100 million endowment with which to "save" the Southwest Museum. (Link above)

Then readers should compare the $100 million "endowment" claim with the reality revealed by the incredibly sharp research of the Friends of the Southwest Museum assisted by a renowned expert on nonprofit organizations, Jack Siegel. Google the "Friends of the Southwest Museum" and view "Key Documents" to read Mr. Siegel's report.

Mr. Siegel cogently describes how Mrs. Autry's certification that the Autry's balance sheet was "in accordance with generally accepted accounting principles" and accurate in "all material respects" was not simply not true. The Southwest Museum and the Attorney General was likely misled into approving the merger thinking that Autry had the capacity to THEN care for the Southwest Museum.

It is time for the Los Angeles Times to correct the public record: At the time of the 2002-03 merger with the Southwest Museum, the Autry did NOT have a $100 million "endowment." In fact, on the day of the merger, the struggling Southwest Museum may have had more liquid assets than its "savior."

The Autry is constantly cash starved and the multi-million dollar endowment that the Autry is now raising from unsuspecting donors and foundations using the Southwest Museum's collection confers all the benefit upon the Autry institution while offering the Southwest Museum the shaft.

I do not believe the Autry when it says that none of the philanthropic donors of Los Angeles will donate to return the Southwest Museum to proud service to Los Angeles. We can do better than this.

The officials at the Autry museum have a long history of deceitful practices regarding the Southwest Museum. It's about time the LA TImes took notice of the issue and reported to the people.
It should also be noted that the city spent millions of dollars on a Gold Line stop in anticipation of the agreed renovation and assurances the priceless artifacts would be appropriately cared for.
The article also fails to mention the historical significance of the building itself. It's par for the shallow reporting the Times is known for, but a real blow to the importance of what's about to be lost.

It was a breath of fresh air that overtook Council Chambers yesterday. I'm so glad that the Board of Referred Powers saw through the Autry schemes and plots of the last six years, and blew through the support of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa for the Autry National Center and alleged Southwest Society (where have they been for the last 18 months, anyway?). But that's just a start.

When the BRP hears more after the continuance, Councilmember Jose Huizar needs to step up to the plate with his legacy in hand. He needs to show his own constituents that he cares more than their former councilman. He needs to show that the deal with the Autry National Center is on paper declaring that the Autry will retain the Southwest Museum as Charles Fletcher Lummis wanted it: A MUSEUM. Now is the time to include that language in a legally binding document. Give the city back its cultural landmarks ... re-open The Southwest MUSEUM!

This is typical of rich corporations "Why should we pay taxes" The Autry should not be in Griffith Park at all and now they will get more free land if they keep up the Southwest Museum? Screw that. Get the heck out of Griffith Park altogether, go buy private land like regular folks do. So now we have to accept Autry building HUGE in Griffith Park for a $1.00 per year land deal? Why don't I get a $1.00 per year land deal on my house? I agree the SW museum should be kept and used and improved, but to have that tied to a greedy corporation getting free land that is not supposed to even be on the table is not right.

I can guarantee that there would have been a lot more people from Mt. Washington if many of us hadn't had work obligations. Neighbors of the Southwest Museum have great respect for that institution and its history. We wish to keep it here and we oppose the Autry's power grab of our museum. It is a classic case of the Cowboys vs. the Indians and it is about time that the Indians win this one.

The Southwest Museum should not be swallowed up by the Autry museum. The Southwest is a unique institution and should be allowed to stay right where it is with its unique collection of Native American artifacts.

If Jerry Brown wants to be governor, I think as Attorney General he has the right and the duty to protect the charitable investments made by donors to the Southwest Museum back to 1907 when the museum was founded. It seems that the Autry management, composed of a bunch of greedy bankers, do not have a clue about fiduciary duty owed to preservation of the City's first museum. And how is the Wells Fargo Foundation, the Bank of America Foundation, and the Annenberg Foundation blindly giving millions to subsidize this awful expansion in Griffith Park, our park?

In addition to the fact that the Southwest Museum itself is of enormous historical significance to Los Angeles is the matter of the integrity of its collections. As an anthropologist, I have worked with the ceramic collections of the institution curating two exhibits there some years ago while a staff member. There are many objects in the collections (this is true of museums with major ethnographic, archaeological, and historical collections) which will probably never be on public display. They are not of “museum quality,” that is they are not photogenic or dramatic. They are, however, of incalculable value culturally and historically. The maintenance of the Southwest Museum’s collections and their integrity is a huge concern. There should be, at a minimum, a guarantee from the Autry that it will never deaccession any part of the collections at any time for any reason. This should explicitly include the holdings of the Braun Research Library.

I neglected to mention in my earlier post that I find the Autry's resurrection of “The Southwest Society” and its use of Lummis’ name completely self-serving.

Keep the SW museum alive. I loved what Contreras said about broken promises. LA is so decentralized, I would think the GAM would want another location, and we need the SW in North East LA.

Rus Nichols wrote "It is a classic case of the Cowboys vs. the Indians and it is about time that the Indians win this one." If he read the article carefully, the Autry received ENDORSEMENTS from Native American tribes, artists, educators and organizations. In fact, not one Native American spoke for the opposing side. Those that talk about "looting" and "grabbing" in the context of "Indians v Cowboys" really need to stop and analyze their argument. Not only is this a grossly incorrect analogy, it uses a horrible event in Native American history to make a point only for the sake of sensationalism.

If the Native People recognize, support, and PARTICIPATE in the Autry's efforts to preserve the objects that represent their cultures, then who is being looted? Who is losing the war? The non-Native Mt. Washington community who couldn't even save the Southwest Museum from the brink of financial disaster by attending the museum pre-merger? In the hearing, the coalition boasted that 7000+ people signed their petition. If those 7,000 people attended the museum at a regular basis, there is a good chance that the Southwest Museum could have been self-sustaining. If there is to be an agreement that the Autry has to keep the Southwest Museum a "fully functioning" museum, then the Autry should get an agreement from the community that they will support the museum in helping it thrive and not just see it as a pretty token to look at from the view of their hillside homes.

@Glassell Man

Here's some advice, assuming you are serious and not just a whiner.

First, you need non-profit status. Then you must open your home to the public to view your collection of cultural artifacts and soiled underwear. Assuming there is enough significance to and interest in your cultural artifacts and soiled underwear, you might be able to get a $1.00/year lease from your landlord, if he or she was born yesterday.

Perez's argument is an argument that Autry management has been disseminating for some time -- like it's the responsibility of just the neighborhood of Mt. Washington and Highland Park to raise funds for and support the museum. It is the responsibility of the Board of Directors.

The neighborhood near the Southwest Museum had more paid members and volunteer docents than other zip codes in the Los Angeles region. This tends to be true with any museum. Many of the docents at the Getty live near the museum and many Autry Museum volunteers and members live in Los Feliz. I have never heard the Autry say to the Los Feliz neighborhood: "It's the fault of you people that we have not completed raising funds for the Autry." The job of raising funds for the Autry and for the Southwest Museum is the Board of Directors -- not the neighbors in the community. The Board of the Autry (and its management) should stop pointing the finger at neighbors and look at themselves. They alone are responsible to raise the necessary funds. No museum can be sustained only from persons living in the immediate vicinity. Attendance must be drawn from all over Southern California, one of the nation's largest cultural markets.

As for the Native American support, the Autry frankly has vocal support from certain members of the Native American community who financially benefit from Autry contracts and grants. For instance, one unconditional Native American supporter told the City Council that Autry has been good to her as an artist in the Native Voices program. That's a great program, but the woman's financial self-interest taints the credibility of her willingness to trash all the other cultural history associated with the Southwest Museum. The Native American artifacts in the collection are only a part of the collection. There is also Hispanic, Californios, Mexican and many other constituencies represented the Southwest's collection. For anyone to suggest that Native American voices, especially those tainted with financial self-interest, speak for the whole Los Angeles community is misguided.

As a 25-year Mt. Washington resident and lifetime member of the Southwest Museum from long before this controversy (indeed my wife and I love the Southwest Museum so much, we were married there), I wanted to offer a few brief thoughts about the Southwest Museum and the Autry National Center’s stewardship in regards to the Autry’s planned expansion within their existing leasehold adjacent to Interstate 5 in Griffith Park.

Since the merger agreement the Autry has honored every commitment they have made to the community. Furthermore, they have preserved the literally priceless collection and landmark building after what can, sadly, only be described as decades of neglect. Yes, of course, I was very concerned when the merger agreement was signed. Yes, it was my privilege to vote as a founding member of the board of the Arroyo Seco Neighborhood Council in support the original “Friends of the Southwest Museum Coalition” organized by Eliot Sekular (perhaps more famous in the Arroyo as the organizer of Lummis Day, but best known in Mt. Washington for more than a decade of service on issues like Gold Line safety issues, the ASNC, well, you name it.)

However, in the intervening years there is nothing the Autry has done to merit what can only be described as the rather hysterical and conspiratorial theories that have recurrently been put forward by the now “steering committee” of the “friends coalition.” Indeed, just in the last few days, Dan Wright, now leader of the “steering committee” (Eliot and almost all of the other successful local grassroots organizers having resigned some time ago over these selfsame tactics, leading to the creation of the all-too-orwellian “steering committee”) has spent two years stirring up fear and mistrust in our neighborhood for the Autry, with claims “Indian Casinos” and “condo developments” and “yard sales of artifacts” and “Enron-scale scandals.”

As a longtime supporter of the Southwest Museum and an immediate neighbor, I do of course regard myself as a stakeholder in this issue. Just not among the most important stakeholders, which in this case, would be the collection itself, the native Americans whose ancestors created it, and the people of Los Angeles – if not the world. All of the responsible groups who represent these interests, from museum professionals to native American groups, from academics to architects, support the actions of the Autry to preserve the collection and provide for its care, study and largest possible overall audience. (Indeed, all that seems left is small group of parochial, self-appointed, “community leaders” with all-white spokespeople trying to tell Native Americans what’s best for them. This makes me more than a little uncomfortable.)

I also strongly believe the existing agreement with the mayor and Autry, which Councilman Huizar and the Southwest Society brokered, and which will seemingly form the basis of any lease amendment as suggested by councilmen Huizer, Cardenas and Reyes, is a win-win situation for the Mt. Washington campus - which will finally have the resources to display more of the collection, more often, in Mt. Washington itself. While fulfilling Charles Lummis’ original vision of the Southwest Museum as not only a place to display artifacts, but as a vibrant and contemporary arts, cultural and educational resource.

But even worse than losing this opportunity and the current building being turned into long-term storage, the Autry's only option if the collection is to be appropriately conserved and this agreement is not endorsed, I’m very concerned that since the friends coalition fractured, the “steering committee” is pushing a major development of the museum site, including a café, theater and a multi-level parking structure, which will obliterate Mt. Washington’s most historic ridgeline, and reduce the scenic impact of the iconic, landmark, Southwest Museum building. Shockingly, one “steering committee” member openly advocates on local newslists for “a million visitors a year” to a “Griffith Observatory” scale “destination.” Another advocates “collection management facilities” – warehouses – burying a seasonal stream along one of Mt. Washington’s most scenic streets.

I am astonished that the some irresponsible property owners, tourism boosters and local businessmen are seeking such a massive development in such a sensitive location with no public input of any sort, much less the Environmental Impact Report that such a project clearly demands.

- Robert Schraff

With the City budget in the shape it is to find out that the Autry Center, only pays One dollar a year is discussing.


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