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Autry National Center withdraws expansion plan

August 11, 2009 |  7:31 pm

Autry Museum plans

In a move that concedes a measure of victory to long-term opponents, the Autry National Center has bowed out of a protracted battle for a $175-million expansion of its facility in Griffith Park.

City approval of the plan hinged on a recent demand for the Autry to make a legally binding commitment to support the Southwest Museum located in Mt. Washington, as a fully functioning art institution in perpetuity. In a letter delivered to members of the Los Angeles City Council Tuesday, the Autry stated that such a commitment would be irresponsible and that it is withdrawing its proposal.

“Any further attempt to proceed with the proposed expansion project in Griffith Park would be an ill-advised diversion of our financial resources and an insupportable distraction from our work in serving the community,” Autry President John L. Gray states in the letter. “We come to this decision with reluctance and deep regret — but the constant delays, the past and future costs, the unyielding insistence on financial and programmatic commitments which we cannot responsibly make, and the prospect of future expensive and debilitating litigation all demand that we fulfill the Autry’s vision under different circumstances.”

Councilman José Huizar, whose district includes the Southwest Museum, said the decision caught him by surprise.

Southwest Museum “I was expecting more rounds of negotiation,” he said. “It didn’t make sense to me that there would be a $175-million commitment to the expansion of the Griffith Park site and that the Autry wouldn’t want to make a commitment to financial support at the Southwest Museum site. We had an opportunity to come up with something that would be mutually beneficial. ...It’s unfortunate, but I don’t see this as a step back. It creates an opportunity for us to move forward on a new path that puts the two sites on equal footing.”

The proposed expansion would have increased the Griffith Park facility from 142,000 square feet to 271,000 square feet, including exhibition and visible storage space for the Southwest’s collection. Plans for the Southwest, which will proceed, call for storing about half of the Native American collection at Mt. Washington and presenting exhibitions there. Programmatic changes include using some galleries for community meetings, creating an archaeology laboratory and converting the Braun Library into an educational facility.

Speaking as an Autry trustee and chairman of the Rumsey Band of Wintun Indians, Marshall McKay said he is deeply disappointed with what he views as a necessary decision.

“The Southwest Museum has one of the most paramount Native America collections west of the Mississippi. To have it in a new building in Griffith Park, as envisioned by the board at the Autry, would have been spectacular. I think some of the people in the Southwest’s neighborhood are missing the point that the Autry has put in a great deal of money and effort into conserving the collection and preserving the building. We are going to continue to do so because it’s a historic place. It’s not something we want to turn away from.”

But Nicole Possert, chairwoman of the Friends of the Southwest Museum Coalition, which has frequently challenged the Autry’s actions and questioned its intentions, said the latest move “continues to cast a light on their refusal to find a win-win solution that upholds their responsibility.”

Eliot Sekuler, a member of the Southwest Society, another community group that has sought written assurance of the Southwest Museum’s future, said the Autry has made “a grand gesture of goodwill” in caring for the building and collection, but long-term operating funds continue to be a cause for concern.
“I am hopeful that this change of course will signal a renewed focus on the Autry’s plans for exhibiting the collection both at Griffith Park and the historic Mt. Washington campus,” he said.

The Autry, named for singing cowboy Gene Autry, opened in 1988 as a museum of the American West and merged with the Southwest in 2003. The partnership — sometimes disparaged as the Autry cowboys’ subjugation of the Southwest Indians — rescued L.A.’s oldest museum from financial ruin, but sparked fears the Autry would grab the Southwest’s valuable, 250,000-piece Native American collection and close its aging building or turn it into an insignificant outpost.

The Autry has spent $7.5 million repairing and renovating the 1914 building and devoted additional resources to cleaning, conserving and cataloging the vast holding of Native American art and artifacts. But the Southwest’s galleries are closed for the rehabilitation and conservation project, and the Autry’s vision of the museum’s future has done little to alleviate suspicion.

The controversy came to a head June 30 at a hearing conducted by the City Council’s Board of Referred Powers. At issue were the Autry’s environmental impact report and an amendment to its $1-a-year lease on 13 acres in the park.

 At the request of Huizar, the panel delayed its decision for four weeks and asked the councilman to negotiate a written agreement with the Autry. After meeting with Gray and the Autry’s board of trustees, Huizar was given an additional month to negotiate by his Council colleagues. But the letter says that the Autry was not informed of the extension.

“Because the Autry, like all cultural institutions, depends on grants, annual fundraising and other revenue sources that are not consistent year to year, we cannot responsibly make commitments that are not secured by pledges, grants or other specified funding,” Gray states in the letter.

The Autry’s vision will not change, Gray told The Times. The exhibition program will go forward, including a landmark show of the Southwest’s basket collection opening in November at the Autry, and some storage space in the Griffith Park building will be converted to galleries and publicly visible storage for Native American objects.

Still, scrapping long-laid plans is “horrible,” he said. “I don’t know what else we could have done. Cultural institutions exist only with broad public support. We wanted to make the Southwest Museum more interesting to the public and create a broader level of support for it.”

-- Suzanne Muchnic

Photo: The Autry museum renovation plans called for replacing the Mission belfry with a 70-foot glass-and-steel tower. Credit: Levin & Associates Architects. Bottom: Renovation on the Southwest Museum. Credit: Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times

Comments () | Archives (18)

Huizar just exhibited political malpractice. His current demands were reckless. He says now he wanted more rounds of negotiations, but if you look back a bit, you'll find he negotiated and celebrated an agreement with the Autry two years ago. He's wrong about the two locations being on equal footing. The best chance for the Southwest was success for the Autry in Griffith Park. The Autry's John Gray should be commended for trying to bring vision to the LA cultural scene. The city never understood the value that was before them. This is an extraordinary large loss for Los Angeles, and a signal to anyone wanting to do business in LA that they should stay the heck away.

I can't believe the Times allows such gratuitous and inflammatory statement as "sometimes disparaged as the Autry cowboys’ subjugation of the Southwest Indians." The Southwest was founded by white men who acquired its collection from Native Americans, in part by ways no one now would be proud of.

Whatever else may be said about the future of the Mt Washington facility, it seems most Native American groups are supportive of the Autry in its efforts to preserve and display the Southwest collection, and are not (perhaps with cause) particularly insistent on that being done at the Mt Washington facility.

It's time for the Times to drop the cowboys and Indians cliche.

There seems to be an assumption that the Autry has unlimited funds. Certainly neither the City nor the Mt Washington groups were offering the Autry funds or anything else of value, except their acquiescence to the Griffith Park expansion.

The real issue here was whether or not, in the context of a hearing about the expansion of the Autry facility in Griffith Park, it should be appropriate for the City to compel the Autry to commit to operate the Mt Washington facility as a public museum in perpetuity. That's the goal of the Mt Washington groups, but should the nature of the operation of the Mt Washington facility have any bearing on the merits of the proposed Griffith Park expansion? The City Council members decided that the two matters should be tied, whereupon the Autry withdrew it's expansion proposal.

Maybe this is, as this story begins, "a move that concedes a measure of victory to long-term opponents." On the other hand, maybe the rest of the City is worse off than we'd have been with modern (and above-ground) galleries to view those wonderful Native American objects collected by the Southwest's founders over a century ago.

Nobody should be celebrating this one.

I used to belong to the friends group. Once we through food at some Autry employees, I am really sorry about that.

"Measure of victory"? Who was competing? The Autry saved the Southwest Museum when no one else raised the funds and Mrs. Autry and Mr. Gray have never been properly thanked by Los Angeles and its citizens.

"Measure of victory"? Who was competing? No one won anything. The Autry singlehandedly saved the Southwest Museum. Mrs. Autry, Mr. Gray and the Southwest/Autry board have never been properly thanked by Los Angeles, the city council, and the residents.

As a past native american artist, who participated in numerous Southwest Museum Indian Art Shows, I too was apprehensive about the move to Autry of the Indian Art Show. In the first year, the two names were side by side and then Southwest Museum was dropped and it became just and Autry Indian Art Show. This allowed the Autry to shoehorn everything dealing with Native America in the Los Angeles basin area into their boot. Now that they are the only source, they can call the shots in regards to native american material culture in the LA area. I say, the Southwest Museum needs to withdraw and become on their own again! Their history is better and more important than some old nasty wanna be cowboy.

THE Autry’s plans from the very beginning were to take possession of the Southwest collection and make it theirs. Autry wants the whole collection for themselves and only Autry. To have the Southwest Museum share equal footing as it was agreed in the merger would not give the Autry the status it seeks to be the only ONE to have possession of such a magnificent collection. Jackie Autry wants it all for herself.


Okay, we'll see if my comment stays posted this time.

Fascinating that the Autry is now saying that they "cannot responsibly make commitments that are not secured by pledges, grants or other specified funding,” when there were question as to whether funding was actually identified for Phase 1 of the Griffith Park expansion.

Thank Griffith's great grand kids that we aren't letting entitlements be granted on spec.

Yaaaay! When I got the email that the expansion plans were dropped I nearly jumped for joy. Look at the picture of the modern monstrasity they were going to spend nearly 200 Million dollars on! Does anything about that rendition say Autry, Southwest or Los Angeles to you? It is a faceless, boring design -- not even as interesting as the post modern library I grew up with. The design of the Autry is great just the way it is, and the Southwest museum is now a restored classic piece of SoCal architecture. So they should spend maybe 50 Million to open the Southwest museum and expand a little at the Autry, not messing with the original architecture. Oh, and then they can open a Nudie display. At a recent event I heard John Gray very loudly boasting to a patron that they have so much Nudie stuff in the archive. Yes, that is true, but when I went over to talk to him about getting it OUT of the archive, and on DISPLAY, he brushed me off, and referred me to a clueless underling. I have no earthly idea why they thought the design of the expansion, and the $175 Million budget would fly -- they are TOTALLY out of touch with their membership. They should do what Gene would do . . . do right by what they have in the archive, and stop trying to be something they are not.

The financial report on the website of the Friends of the Southwest Museum is eye opening. The Autry submitted to the former Board of the Southwest Museum a "materially misleading" and not in accordance with general accepted accounting principles financial statement that claimed it had about $100 million of "Current Assets". John Gray told the Southwest and the LA Times that it had a $100 million endowment when, in fact, it only had $1.8 million in its endowment. The report makes clear that from the beginning, the Autry has not been truthful to Los Angeles or the Southwest about its ability to take charge of and care for the Southwest Museum.

Google the term: "Friends of the Southwest Museum and Jack Siegel"to read the report. It is shocking.

What a shame. Everyone loves the Southwest Museum, but it seems that the real issue has been lost to neighborhood sentiment. Isn't this supposed to be about advancing cultural and educational benefits to the public by creating exhibits and showing collections in a place where more people can see and learn from them, in the most convenient, enjoyable and efficient way? After all, this is not about a building, it is about what the building can achieve.

I don't blame the Autry at all for not working with these people, once me and my child were called names by protesters as we entered the museum.

I don't believe the neighborhood ever tried to help raise money when the Southwest was in trouble all those years. I love my neighbors but all they do is vilify the Gene Autry museum as if that is their only purpose in life. Why don't we do something for the poor with all this energy?

What a shame that some people love to destroy and not create. The group protesting the Autry expansion to better serve the community and the Southwest collection have never financially supported or even been members of an institution they claim to represent. But then again, they have protested every positive thing that has ever been proposed for the Mt. Washington community. When they channel their anger toward something else, perhaps then and only then can the dreams of our Native American Community move forward to save their historical artifacts and have them on proper public display for all the communities to enjoy.

"Measure of victory"? Who was competing? The Autry saved the Southwest Museum. Mrs. Autry and Mr. Gray have never been properly thanked by the city council and the residents of LA.

I was at the meeting where Huizar made his proposal. In all honesty I don't care about cowboys, indians, or museums. I confess that I do care about job creation though. Both sides brought up supporters. The autry museum had a lot of people from the native american community and educators who talked about programs for kids. Then the save the southwest people brought up individuals who seemed to have trouble stringing sentences together and then some cute kids. I wanted to agree with them, they had passion and moxie. It's always funner to root for the little guy but they just didn't offer anything constructive. It seemed they wanted the southwestern museum to return to some state it was in in the past when it went belly-up on the Autry Institution's dime, in essence telling them how to run their various museums. Perhaps if they demonstrate that they could run some small non-profit that did something productive, the Autry could give them the 'seat at the table' they want. But without any demonstrable skill in community outreach or the museum discipline why would they?

The dramatic contrast in comments here demonstrates the deep disagreement in the Los Angeles community regarding how best to respect the importance of the Southwest Museum and its collection in Los Angeles.

There are certain partisans, many who have financial linkages to the Autry, who think the expansion in Griffith Park is the best way to make the Southwest's collection available to the public and scholars. There are many things about the Autry proposal to like -- such as the idea that if collection storage was to be allowed on parkland, it would be open storage techniques that would allow the public to see greater portions of the Southwest's Collection behind glass even when not in interpretive exhibits.

The big objection of thousands of Los Angelenos to the Griffith Park expansion proposal was the 20,000 sf of "Southwest Galleries" that would have replaced the National Register of Historic Places Southwest Museum building's role as the chief place where children and the public could see the Southwest's collection. The 2004 rehabilitation report for the Southwest concluded it could be successfully restored and that it would have respectable earned revenues to continue as the City's first museum.

The Autry's merger agreement promised to maintain the Southwest Museum as a museum if studies show it was feasible. Autry's Board arrogantly rejected their own experts' study and factual conclusions. Instead, the Board hired expensive lawyers and lobbyists to try to ram the duplication of the Southwest Museum's space in Griffith Park through our City Hall. The broad City-wide coalition of people (not just the pejoratively-named "neighbors") swamped City elected officials with demands that Autry's merger promises be incorporated into the project conditions and that the 20,000 sf redundant space be substantially cut from the expansion. This would enforce the merger promises made by Autry and reinforce the conclusions of Autry's own expert study.

Behind the scenes Autry had not raised enough money to build the expansion anyway. This outcome became a convenient way for the Autry Board to try to blame its inability to raise funds on some other scapegoat. Over time, the truth will come out.


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