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Autry to team with historical society

The Griffith Park center will display some of the San Francisco group's holdings in a new gallery expected to open in 2007.

June 10, 2005|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

The Autry National Center and the California Historical Society have entered into a 100-year partnership designed to enhance exhibitions at the Autry museum in Los Angeles and create a Southern California presence for the San Francisco-based historical society. The plan calls for joint projects that will bring the society's holdings out of storage and into the public eye.

Sixty-eight of the society's 1,000 paintings -- including major works by Albert Bierstadt, James Walker and Maynard Dixon -- and the entire 600-piece holding of 18th and 19th century costumes and accessories will be transferred to the Autry's facility in Griffith Park for exhibition and conservation. The works will be displayed in a new 2,000-square-foot gallery dedicated to the society, other exhibitions at the Autry and traveling shows. The California Historical Society Gallery is expected to open in 2007 amid an expansion project now on the drawing boards.

"This is a marriage made in heaven," said former California Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp, who helped forge the relationship during his 2002-04 presidency of the society's board of trustees. "One of the things I did as president was to try to make the historical society more of a statewide organization. We have one of the really fine California libraries, a terrific photography collection and substantial art that does not get shown very often. The Autry can provide a much larger audience and conservation services."

"From our perspective," said John L. Gray, Autry executive director and chief executive, "this gives us a large and important enough collection to present exhibitions that can change the way people think about the American West. We want to tell the complex and contradictory stories as well as the inspiring ones." Many of the objects to be housed at the Autry are rarely, if ever, available on the market, he added.

The partnership links two nonprofit organizations with strikingly different profiles.

The historical society -- a relatively staid, low-profile fixture of the Bay Area's cultural scene -- was founded in 1871 and began collecting in the 1920s. It is headquartered in a historic building with limited exhibition space in downtown San Francisco, and the society has a formal partnership with the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley.

The Autry -- a rapidly expanding upstart founded by a singing cowboy -- opened in 1988 as the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum and evolved into the Autry Museum of Western Heritage. The Autry National Center was established in 2003 as an umbrella organization following the museum's merger with the Southwest Museum of the American Indian on Mount Washington and the Women of the West, a Web-based program.

Representatives of the historical society approached the Autry about a partnership nearly three years ago, said Stephen Becker, the society's executive director. Although the society frequently lends objects to other institutions, its leaders were interested in a long-term arrangement that would make better use of its resources and boost its visibility.

"It's not just the sharing of collections," he said. "It's also the sharing of creativity and programs and ideas. We were very impressed by the work the Autry trustees had done with the Southwest and Women of the West. And the way they are building a popular program and intellectual capital is spectacular. The Autry is really becoming the stellar history-based institution in the West. We are very pleased to be partnering with them."

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