Southwest Museum supporters sue city, fearing site's extinction
Years of wrangling over whether the Autry National Center has a right to shed a costly and inconvenient subsidiary, the Southwest Museum, has spilled, perhaps inevitably, into the courts.
Southwest backers are asking a Los Angeles Superior Court judge to overturn two recent decisions by Los Angeles city officials allowing the Autry to undertake what it has characterized as a routine gallery renovation at its Griffith Park museum. Opponents say the remodeling would be the first step in an irreversible sequence that would end the Southwest’s nearly hundred-year run in Mount Washington as the home of a prized collection of Native American artifacts.
The Southwest backers say it’s vital to the neighborhood’s economic and cultural life that the museum be resurrected. Under the Autry, which took over the financially beleaguered Southwest Museum in a 2002 merger, public access to the museum narrowed to a trickle before it was closed entirely in January 2010.
While the Autry itself is not a defendant, the suit accuses it of an “evasion of environmental review” that city officials then rubber-stamped. The Autry leases its Griffith Park site from the city for $1 a year, and city officials have to OK any renovations.
The suit contends that recreation and parks commissioners and the city council were obligated to look at the big picture of how a routine gallery renovation in Griffith Park could ultimately doom the Southwest Museum; instead, with a deadline looming for a $6.6-million state grant that would largely fund the renovation, the city council OK’d the project. Council members promised to address the bigger issue of the Southwest Museum’s fate later; now the Southwest backers’ suit aims to compel that discussion in court.
The city attorney's office couldn't comment, its spokesman, Frank Mateljan, said Wednesday, because the city has not yet been served with the lawsuit.
The Autry has made it clear that it no longer wants to operate the Southwest Museum, preferring to donate it to or partner with another nonprofit, such as Occidental College, which would put the 1914-vintage historic site to a different use. Last year the Autry bought a large building in Burbank that it plans to renovate as a collections and research center. That would end the Autry’s need to hold on to the Southwest site as a warehouse for the nearly 300,000-piece Native American collection. The Burbank center also would free the Autry to convert its Griffith Park collection storage wing into about 25,000 square feet of new galleries.
According to the suit, the recent votes by city officials contradict both the California Environmental Quality Act, which the plaintiffs say requires a more thorough review, and L.A.’s General Plan of future development, which calls for city government to “support the Southwest Museum as a cultural resource … and preserve its present location in Mt. Washington.”
-- Mike Boehm
Photo: Tower of 1914 Southwest Museum building. Credit: Kirk McCoy / Los Angeles Times