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Hidden Treasure

A renowned repository of American Indian arts and crafts, the Southwest Museum is the city's oldest museum--and one of the least-noticed. Its director plans to change that.

June 09, 1996|Suzanne Muchnic | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

'Two things have amazed me since I've come here," said Duane H. King, who became director of the Southwest Museum in October. "One is people who have lived here for a long time but have come to the Southwest Museum for the first time. When they see the exhibits, it's as if someone just turned on a light. They seem so pleased that a museum of this quality is so close by and so surprised that they are just now discovering it. The other is people who came here as children and are astonished that it's still here after all these years."

If longevity and collections equaled fame, the Southwest Museum would be Los Angeles' best-known visual arts attraction. Founded in 1907 and opened at its present site in Highland Park in 1914, the Southwest is not only the city's oldest museum, it claims one of the nation's top holdings of Native American art and artifacts, and the world's most extensive collection of Native American textiles. The combined riches of the museum and its Braun Research and Joseph Amasa Munk libraries--including some 50,000 books plus vast troves of photographs, maps and documents--make the Southwest the world's largest repository of California Indian culture.

Yet the venerable institution is in a perpetual state of discovery, particularly at home. "Los Angeles' best-kept secret" is how the museum's trustees describe it, and the cliche sticks because it seems to fit.

So what's the problem? An off-the-beaten-track location, inadequate facilities and a chronic shortage of money.

Although perched on a pinnacle overlooking the Pasadena Freeway and quite centrally located, the Southwest is far enough from other major cultural attractions to seem remote. The museum's distinctive Spanish-style building is a beloved relic, but it's antiquated and ill-suited to a modern museum's needs. Display areas are so limited that 98% of the 250,000-piece collection is kept in storage (much of it off-site); lacking an auditorium and classrooms, the museum must use overtaxed galleries for special programs; offices and work areas are rudimentary; and parking is inadequate. Completely dependent on private funds, the museum functions on an annual operating budget of $1.3 million and never seems to get beyond providing for its day-to-day survival.

None of these problems are new--nor are efforts to solve them.

Former Southwest Museum Director Thomas H. Wilson and the trustees considered 80 proposals to move the museum in 1992-94, during a period of exploring options to enhance the facilities and reach a larger audience. Under pressure from Mayor Richard Riordan, among others, they decided to stay put and expand on the present site. But Riordan's promise of a blue-ribbon committee to spearhead the renovation and expansion never materialized, and Wilson resigned at the end of 1994, citing family commitments and professional frustration. Upon his departure, the museum appeared to settle back into a familiar state of limbo.

But now, once again, the Southwest seems to be on the move. The museum on May 18 reopened its historic tunnel entrance, containing 20 dioramas of Indian life made in 1921-43. And a new elevator has replaced the defunct 1919 model. Instead of driving or walking to the top of the hill, visitors can enter the museum through the street-level tunnel and take the elevator to the main floors, where two new exhibitions are on view.

One show, "Tunneling to the Acropolis," consists of historic photographs and drawings of the tunnel and dioramas. The other, "Gifts of Power," presents Native American art and artifacts from the plains, prairie and plateau regions. Conceived by chief curator Kathleen Whitaker, it addresses communal relationships and includes items that appeal to children.

More is going on behind the scenes. A renovation of the Plains Hall, where "Gifts of Power" is installed, is expected to begin next year. And--probably most important in the long run--a search is underway to find a high-visibility satellite site for the museum to stage exhibitions, make better use of its collection and raise its profile.

Behind all this action is King, 48, who left the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian in New York, where he was assistant director, to take on the Southwest's challenges. Soft-spoken and reserved almost to the point of reticence, he nonetheless inspires confidence with a rock-solid presence as he conveys a strong belief in the museum's historic importance and its potential.

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