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Museum Board, Neighbors Start Mending Fences

April 04, 1991|PHIL SNEIDERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Relations between the Southwest Museum and the surrounding community, which were strained after the museum said it may leave Mt. Washington, have taken a cordial turn in recent weeks.

The museum board has agreed to involve the community as it weighs whether to relocate the Mt. Washington landmark. At the same time, neighborhood leaders have toned down their attack on the Southwest's decision-makers.

The moves are part of an uneasy truce struck between the community group, Save Our Southwest Museum or SOS, and the museum, which houses a world-famous collection of American Indian art.

Museum officials say relocation still may be needed to solve the aging facility's financial and structural problems.

But the museum board did a turnabout last month after rebuffing SOS's early pleas for a voice in deciding the museum's future. The board agreed to let SOS critique three studies that will aid the directors in deciding whether the Southwest should remain in Mt. Washington. SOS will be able to review the documents while they are being prepared.

The desire among board members and SOS leaders to mend fences became apparent at two recent meetings.

On March 20, SOS co-chairwoman Diana Barnwell was permitted for the first time to address the entire museum board. She said her group's goal is to become "Support Our Southwest Museum" if museum officials decide not to leave Mt. Washington.

And on Tuesday, Michael Heumann, the new chairman of the museum's long-range planning committee, spoke to SOS members, then fielded questions for almost two hours.

"I think we actually have an awful lot more in terms of common goals than we realize," Heumann told about 40 SOS supporters at the Highland Park Ebell Club.

Since last October, when the museum said it might have to leave Mt. Washington, SOS has lobbied to stop such a move. Its members argued that the museum's collection and its prominent white hillside building, opened in 1914, are an important cultural anchor for the community.

The group persuaded state and Los Angeles city and county officials to oppose relocation, and it questioned the museum's motives in letters to key corporate donors. The letters stated that some residents of ethnically mixed northeast Los Angeles perceived the proposed move as "a racial, cultural and economic insult."

At the same time, SOS complained that the museum board was turning a deaf ear to its offer to help solve the museum's problems. Museum officials have said they have inadequate exhibit and storage space, insufficient parking and structural deficiencies in the present building.

In an indication of improved relations, SOS has stopped writing letters to corporate donors questioning Southwest's proposed move. Museum board members argued that this tactic was counter-productive because it could jeopardize the Southwest's financial health at any location.

"We have backed off that drive for the moment," SOS spokeswoman Caryl Levy said. "We made a good strong point, but we're not involved in that letter-writing at the moment."

At its March 20 meeting, the museum board ordered that an architectural review, engineering study and marketing analysis be prepared over the next six to nine months. Consultants will predict the consequences of expanding the museum at its present location, moving part of the collection to a satellite location or moving the entire museum to a new site.

SOS will be allowed to review and comment on draft copies of the three studies before the final reports are issued.

"We have told SOS that we will share the results of these studies as we go along," Willis B. Wood Jr., the museum's new board president, said in an interview.

Wood said it is uncertain whether the studies will find that Mt. Washington or a new site is best for the museum. "While it's a decision the board will have to make in the end, it is not one we have already made, which some people had thought," he said.

At Tuesday's SOS meeting, museum board member Heumann said the directors may allow an SOS member to sit on the long-range planning committee that will oversee the studies' preparation. He asked the group to submit the names and resumes of three candidates for the committee post.

"We're communicating with SOS and in doing so are getting past a lot of the misconceptions on their part," Heumann said before the meeting.

Although relations between SOS and the board have improved, some friction remains.

Museum directors point out that the neighborhood does not significantly support the museum through memberships or donations. SOS members say the museum has not aggressively tapped resources in the surrounding community.

On Tuesday, some SOS members also wondered whether the museum's upcoming studies will be slanted to justify a move.

SOS spokeswoman Levy cautioned, "SOS is not critiquing and evaluating the studies in an unbiased way. We're going to evaluate them with the goal of keeping the museum in the community."

But Heumann insisted the studies will be objective. And museum board members said their primary concerns are preserving the museum's collection and ensuring its long-term economic viability at any location.

"I don't think there's any question that there's some distrust by SOS for us and some distrust by us for SOS," Wood said. "We're certainly doing everything we can to have an open relationship with them. Where we'll end up, I don't know."

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