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A Commitment Endangered

November 09, 1987

The oldest and one of the most valuable museums in the region, the Southwest Museum, is again in crisis, and this time the crisis threatens the independent future of the institution. That is a matter of concern for all, not just for the museum board that has been struggling to find a solution. It is a challenge of national consequence because the museum has one of the finest collections of Native American artifacts and literature in existence.

Paradoxically, the crisis comes at a moment of new vigor, growth and expansion under the imaginative leadership of Patrick T. Houlihan, director since 1981. He has led the museum to accreditation last year in the prestigious American Assn. of Museums, doubled memberships, increased school visits to 25,000 students a year, revived a moribund program of exhibits and special programs, and attracted substantial gifts that have more then doubled the endowment.

But none of this growth has overcome a stubborn deficit. Budgets, ranging from $1 to $1.2 million a year, have been plagued with shortfalls of $250,000 or more year after year. The gap has been closed by the generosity of a couple of trustees and foundations, a financial dependency that is inappropriate in the long run.

By all accounts, the board of trustees is now divided on the next step. There are indications that a majority favors joining the Southwest Museum with the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History. That proposal has the promise of reducing some overhead expenses. But it is by no means clear that the amalgamation would win significant new resources or that it could protect adequately the independence and scientific vigor of the Southwest Museum. The Museum of the American Indian in New York City is facing a similar crisis and is considering a radical change that would transfer its principal operations to the burgeoning row of museums on the Mall in the nation's capital, a solution that has strengthened the hands of those who think only extreme reorganization can rescue the Southwest Museum.

The crisis already has taken a heavy toll in the resignation of Houlihan as director. That will be a major loss at a time when continuity of leadership is important. Perhaps he can be persuaded to change his mind. But that will depend, for board and staff together, on the ability of the community to respond to the crisis and broaden the base of support for this institution that has, for 80 years, symbolized a commitment to celebrate the origins of this region of America and the unique contribution of those who came first.

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