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Autry, Southwest museum feud has echoes of western duel

The Griffith Park facility's desire to borrow Indian artifacts from its smaller Mount Washington partner sparks worries about the Southwest's future.

July 02, 2009|Bob Pool

It could have been a scene right out of a Gene Autry horse opera -- a cowboys-versus-Indians-style faceoff, potshots being fired by both sides, a hero riding to the rescue in the final reel.

That seems to be the plot line of the drama that is playing out between backers of the Autry National Center of the American West in Griffith Park and those of the Southwest Museum a few miles away in Mount Washington.

The Autry museum wants to double its size and display some of the Southwest's American Indian artifacts as a way of broadening and diversifying its depiction of the early American West.

Whoa, say Southwest's supporters. They contend that the loss of exhibits and an accompanying diminished role for the museum will lead to the demise of the 95-year-old hillside landmark -- which is the city's oldest museum.

The proposed $95-million Autry project would add 25,000 square feet of new gallery space, four classrooms and several children's rooms to its site at the Los Angeles Zoo parking lot next to the 5 Freeway.

From the beginning, the focus of the Southwest Museum has been Native American culture. Its founder, Charles Lummis, became intrigued by the plight of American Indians in 1884 and '85 when he walked across the country from Cincinnati to Los Angeles.

Lummis built a home that is a landmark in the Arroyo Seco and is now yards from the Pasadena Freeway. He returned often to Arizona and New Mexico to study Indian culture and assist Native Americans. In 1907 he began planning the Southwest Museum, which opened seven years later.

In recent years, however, the museum struggled financially. Its directors agreed in 2003 to merge with the Autry, which began underwriting the smaller museum's operating costs of more than $100,000 a month.

But a Mount Washington neighborhood group, Friends of the Southwest Museum, has watched warily as Autry museum leaders have planned their expansion.

The two sides had a showdown meeting Tuesday at City Hall, when a City Council panel met to sign off on an environment report for the enlarged Griffith Park museum.

Both camps came armed with dueling expansion plan ideas -- Autry with a brochure promising "exciting innovations" that would "transform the visitor experience in Griffith Park," and Southwest backers with one proposing the that 12-acre Mount Washington site be "re-visioned" to take advantage of the nearby Gold Line train station with such features as a new stage, a restaurant, improved parking and expanded gallery space.

The afternoon debate before a standing-room-only crowd extended into the evening hours.

John Gray, the Autry's chief executive, told council members meeting as the city Board of Referred Powers that his museum "always anticipated expansion" in Griffith Park. He disputed suggestions that the Autry was, in essence, looting the Southwest Museum of its artifacts and preparing to convert it for another use.

Architect Brenda Levin explained how the enlarged Autry will scrap its current Spanish motif for a more nonspecific look. It would feature a "convergence canyon" that would integrate artifacts and artwork from the Southwest Museum with those of the Autry's collection, which some critics say has tended to lean heavily toward the pop-culture mythology of the cowboy Wild West.

Opponents of the expansion argued the project was too big, its effect on the Southwest Museum would be too major, and the Autry's compensation to the city for its 12 acres of parkland -- $1 a year -- was too meager.

Nicole Possert, head of a coalition to preserve the Southwest Museum, complained of the "myth consistently spun by the Autry" that the Mount Washington landmark will not be adversely effected by the Autry's expansion.

It was City Councilman Jose Huizar, who represents the Mount Washington area, who broke the stalemate. He proposed that the city require Autry officials to sign an "airtight" written pledge to protect both the Southwest Museum and its 250,000 artifacts before the expansion proceeds.

The board agreed to delay consideration of the project for a month to give the two museums time, as Councilwoman Janice Hahn put it, "to codify" a future operating agreement.

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bob.pool@latimes.com

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