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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