The Southwest Museum, which is considering joining forces with the Autry Museum of Western Heritage, may have found a second suitor. The Pechanga band of Luiseno Indians, which operates a lucrative casino near Temecula, has submitted a formal letter of inquiry to the museum about exploring a possible alliance.
The letter, which was received by Southwest Museum Director Duane King about two weeks ago, adds a new component to discussions about a potential partnership with the Autry Museum in Griffith Park. Under terms of a draft proposal under consideration by trustees of the two museums, a new building for the Southwest Museum would be erected adjacent to the Autry Museum; the Southwest's current facility in Mount Washington would be converted to a joint research center; and all three operating units would be governed by a new National Center for Western Heritage.
Russell Murphy, communications director of the Pechangas, said the letter is "a very preliminary inquiry." He emphasized that no formal proposal for an alliance has been made and no action would be taken without approval of the tribe's general membership, which numbers about 1,150. The process of gathering facts that might lead to some sort of partnership is only "in the infant stage," Murphy said.
The Pechangas opened a $17-million casino in 1995 and a $1.6-million bingo pavilion two years later. Currently engaged in a $14.5-million public works project that is bringing a broad range of improvements to the 4,500-acre reservation, located directly off Interstate 15, the band also has purchased a nearby ranch. The 720-acre property, known as the Boseker Great Oak Ranch, is the former home of "Perry Mason" author Erle Stanley Gardner and includes about 20 buildings.
Sources close to the Pechangas say they would install a museum and cultural center on the ranch. Establishing a branch of the Southwest Museum there would provide access to one of the country's foremost collections of Native American art and artifacts. Murphy, however, said the use of the property is "up in the air."
King said that potential alliances with the Autry and the Pechanga band "warrant a serious look," because the Southwest Museum is severely limited by its cramped, antiquated facilities on a hilltop site with inadequate parking, and it cannot afford a major expansion and much-needed improvements. The museum will not abandon its historic site in Mount Washington, and it will go forward with plans to construct a $3-million building for open storage of a portion of the 350,000-piece collection, he said. "But to fulfill our mission we have to expand beyond our present walls, and we have to look beyond our own resources."
The Southwest's board of trustees, which has already approved discussing an alliance with the Autry, will formulate a procedure for considering other partnerships at its next meeting, on Tuesday, he said.
John Gray, director of the Autry Museum, said the Autry's board of trustees has given "conceptual approval" to go forward with an alliance with the Southwest Museum but has not adopted a formal plan. What's under consideration is "not a merger," he said. "We are trying to create something bigger that gives the public more reasons to support both museums."
Gray said that he hopes the two museums will form a strategic alliance, but that the Native American community must be involved in any decision affecting the development of the Southwest Museum. "At this point, we are waiting for the Southwest to decide how they want to proceed," he said.