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Landmark Effort : Campaign to Keep Museum From Moving Receives Mixed Results

January 10, 1991|PHIL SNEIDERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the three months since the Southwest Museum said it may leave its longtime Mt. Washington home, neighborhood leaders have reaped mixed results in their campaign to stop the proposed move.

A letter-writing drive to pressure the museum's corporate donors has generated little response. But community leaders have been effective in rallying elected officials to their cause. Several seized upon the issue this week, urging the museum not to relocate.

Administrators of the museum, which houses a world-famous collection of American Indian art, said in October that they are considering a move because the site is difficult to reach, has insufficient parking and requires significant structural repairs.

The announcement triggered an outcry from community leaders. They said such a move would deprive Northeast Los Angeles of an important cultural anchor. Several prominent elected officials quickly embraced their cause.

Because the museum is a private nonprofit corporation, the political figures might not have the clout to keep the museum in Mt. Washington. Nevertheless, neighborhood leaders call it an important first step.

"The advantage of the politicians' involvement is that it shows it's not just a splinter group of fanatics" who want to keep the museum at its present site, said Diana Barnwell, co-chairwoman of Save Our Southwest Museum, or SOS.

Louise Padden, the other SOS chairwoman, added: "I don't think you get state senators, a state assemblyman and three City Council members together behind an idea that lacks merit. They must certainly see it as a viable issue."

This week alone, the museum received attention in three political arenas:

Monday, state Sens. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles) and David Roberti (D-Los Angeles) introduced a resolution in Sacramento urging that the museum remain at its present site.

Monday night, at a forum sponsored by the Mt. Washington Assn., eight candidates for the new Los Angeles County supervisor's 1st District seat all said they want the museum to stay where it is. Among the candidates are Torres, state Sen. Charles Calderon (D-Whittier) and Los Angeles Councilwoman Gloria Molina, who already hold influential offices.

In a 12-0 vote Tuesday, the Los Angeles City Council approved a motion by Councilman Richard Alatorre to create a city task force to work with the museum on accessibility, parking and expansion issues to help it remain in Mt. Washington.

About 200 people attending Monday's political forum applauded when the candidates said they also oppose relocation.

But the political support has not changed the minds of museum officials.

"I don't think it has a great deal of effect on us," said Jerome Selmer, executive director of the Southwest Museum.

At the forum, several supervisorial candidates conceded that, even if elected, they would have limited leverage or funding to persuade the museum not to move. "I don't think the county supervisor has a lot of power to do anything, except to be influential," candidate Sarah Flores said.

Calderon said: "Certainly I would do everything I could" to keep the museum from moving. . . . We are looking at women who are having their babies in the hallways in hospitals, and we have to begin prioritizing. . . . But certainly my heart is with the museum."

Molina said the museum should put Mt. Washington leaders on its board to give the community a greater voice in its decision-making. "The kind of distance that has been created by the museum in this community is unfortunate," she said.

The Southwest Museum had a 1990 budget of $1.3 million, but none of the money came from the county, Selmer said. It received about $38,000 from the city of Los Angeles for educational programs, but relied mostly on corporate donations, foundation grants and membership dues, he said.

Mindful of this, SOS late last year sent letters to about 35 of the museum's major corporate donors. It urged the donors to encourage the museum's board of directors to reconsider the relocation plan. It also suggested that more than parking problems are behind the proposed move.

"It may not have come to your attention that there are strong currents in the Northeast community that perceive the move as a racial, cultural and economic insult," the letter said. "Since you are such a prominent donor, we thought you might be concerned with any potential negative publicity, as well as cultural damage to our community."

The letters asked the donors to respond by Dec. 15, but as of last week few had done so, Barnwell said. She said she hoped that corporate officials would find more time to consider the issue now that the holiday season is over.

Regarding the group's letter-writing, Selmer said only that "I guess they have a right to do it. I don't really have any comment on that."

He said all of the key donors were notified by the museum at the time the proposed relocation was made public. He said he has received no comment from the donors regarding the SOS letter.

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