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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.

SouthwestMuseum

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

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