The only part of the Southwest Museum of the American Indian regularly open to the public -- the museum store that had weekend hours only -- will close next month when its space is taken over by a conservation project.
The decision by the Autry National Center of the American West, which runs the Southwest Museum in Mount Washington and the larger Museum of the American West in Griffith Park, to virtually suspend public operations for an estimated three years immediately inflamed the already heated suspicions of some Southwest Museum supporters.
The Autry critics, including Los Angeles City Councilman José Huizar, fear that the Southwest is being relegated to a minor role, if not being written off entirely as a site for displaying a prized collection of almost 300,000 Native American artworks and artifacts.
"I'm very disappointed," Huizar said Wednesday. "It's actually confirming our suspicions that they had no intent to make this a viable destination" for museum-goers.
But Autry spokeswoman Joan Cumming said long-range plans remain unchanged. They call for revitalizing the Southwest Museum as a "multiple-use" facility that would include space for educational programs and community events, as well as galleries that would show parts of the collection not being displayed in Griffith Park.
The project that is prompting the closure is the conservation of the museum's collection of Native American beadwork. Like much of the Southwest Museum's collection, Cumming said, the beads are fragile and need preservation work and that outweighs devoting more resources immediately to making the Southwest a public attraction.
"We understand it's a historic building and it's important to the city, but I don't think [critics] understand how complicated it's been. The collection could just disappear, so it's got to take priority," Cumming said.
Huizar and members of a community group called the Friends of the Southwest Museum Coalition say they have trouble believing the Autry's promises. They fear that the Autry wants to turn the 1914-vintage building into a mere warehouse for the collection, avoiding the expense of running it as a public museum while commandeering its collection to bolster the Griffith Park site as an attraction.
Failing to keep it open and busy could hurt the northeastern Los Angeles neighborhood's economy, the group has said. They see the museum store's imminent closure as a sign that the Autry could revoke promises it made when it rescued the financially tottering Southwest in a 2003 merger that kept the Native American trove in L.A. when it was feared that it might be dispersed.
But Cumming said closing the museum store now for an expected three years is a matter of needing its space for a large project to conserve the Southwest's large holdings of Native American beadwork, preparing them for an exhibition that could be three years off. Conservators "need a lot of space to lay out tables, shelves and equipment," she said.
While the Southwest remains closed, she said, the only public programming will be monthly Saturday events, including lectures, that will require an admission charge for people who aren't Autry Center members. Annual membership dues start at $55 for two people and $65 for a family. The events will be promoted on the Autry's website.
The first lecture, on Jan. 23, is "Surprising Discoveries Inside the Braun Library," in which a librarian or curator will show some of the prime holdings of the research library on the Southwest Museum's campus. The library remains open to researchers by appointment, Cumming said.
Conservation work that was already proceeding on other parts of the collection besides the beads will continue as before, as will renovations to the museum building. Autry officials say they've spent about $7.5 million since the merger on repairing the building and conserving the collection.
A small gallery space in the Southwest Museum has been used once a month for contemporary art shows by NELAart, a consortium of artists and galleries in northeastern Los Angeles. Cumming hopes they can still be accommodated, perhaps in the Casa de Adobe, a reconstruction of a 19th century ranch house that's on the property.
Last summer, Huizar and other City Council members had hoped to secure a formal written guarantee from the Autry that it would get the Southwest up and running as a fully functioning museum. The guarantee was to be a condition for the Autry to proceed with a planned $100-million-plus expansion and renovation of its Griffith Park campus, which is on city-owned parkland.
But in August, the Autry pulled the expansion off the table. Its president, John L. Gray, wrote to council members that legally binding promises to upgrade the Southwest and keep it open no matter what would be "financial and programmatic commitments we cannot responsibly make."