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Southwest Quickens Search for Partner

October 04, 2002|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Leaders of the cash-strapped Southwest Museum in Los Angeles, stalled in partnership talks with the Pechanga Indians of Temecula and looking for an ally, have set a mid-December deal-making deadline and have invited other institutions to submit rival proposals.

Duane King, executive director of the Southwest Museum, said the idea is to clarify the institution's direction and calm supporters who have voiced anxiety over the museum's uncertain status. The Southwest Museum, the oldest in Los Angeles County and renowned for its extensive collection of Native American artifacts, remains open in Mount Washington, but has struggled in recent years with tight finances and dwindling attendance, and has been looking for a wealthier partner with compatible ambitions.

"This is something we need to decide and get on with," King said. The delay, he added, "has affected funding support," prompting questions from foundations and individuals that traditionally donate to the museum. King noted that to keep the museum's operating budget steady at about $1.6 million annually, trustees in recent years have dipped into unrestricted portions of the institution's modest endowment, now just under $4 million.

In inviting proposals from other prospective partners, the museum trustees noted they've looked at various alliance ideas over the years. In 1986, Southwest leaders considered a partnership with the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History that would have merged their collections and created a new facility in the San Fernando Valley. In 2000, the Southwest flirted with the Autry Museum of Western Heritage, which proposed creation of a National Center for Western Heritage that would include both institutions.

For the last year, however, most of the institution's attentions have been focused on the Pechanga Reservation in Riverside County, where leaders have been considering a plan to invest casino revenues in construction of a museum and cultural center.

On May 17, the Southwest trustees agreed to a deal that would give the museum up to $1.3 million in cash yearly, while giving the Pechangas the opportunity to display artifacts from the Southwest collection, 98% of which is out of public view. But on May 19, the Pechanga general council delayed a scheduled vote on the pact when tribal members said they wanted more information.

Talks with the Pechangas have continued, King said, but the invitation is intended to make sure the Southwest Museum isn't overlooking any other opportunities. At the Pechanga Reservation, spokesman and Tribal Council member Butch Murphy called the museum's move an "understandable" step that shows "they must be getting to a crunch period." Murphy said he does expect the partnership proposal to come up again for a vote probably before December, but said he couldn't predict which way the tribe's roughly 850 voting members would lean.

Other institutions that have talked with the Southwest in the past were similarly circumspect. "The Autry Museum hopes the very best for the Southwest Museum's collection," said Autry director John Gray, adding that he will look at the museum's request for proposals.

John Heyning, deputy director of research and collections at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, said, "We would certainly explore [a partnership], but there are a lot of factors that make these strategic partnerships work or not work."

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