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Autry museum's new sheriff has big plans

Daniel M. Finley says the Griffith Park facility needs to balance historical stewardship with entertainment value: 'Being a museum president is being part P.T. Barnum.'

October 04, 2010|By Mike Boehm, Los Angeles Times

Daniel M. Finley rode into town barely a month ago, and the new president of the Autry National Center is already fixin' for a showdown with Doc Holliday, the Earp brothers and the Clanton gang.

The lifesize figures of the OK Corral gunslingers have stood on the Griffith Park museum's lower level since it opened in 1988, in an exhibit representing the famed 1881 shootout in the Arizona Territory town of Tombstone.

The problem, Finley says, is that there's no action — push a button and all you get is an audio account of the gunfight, with lights shining on whichever character is supposed to be speaking.

"It's very dated, in my opinion," Finley says as he marshals a guest through the Autry's galleries, talking about his respect for how the institution has handled its mission of portraying the history, art and culture of the American West by balancing scholarship with entertainment, and romantic notions about the Old West with cold, hard historical realities.

The Autry's essential accomplishment, he says, has been elucidating the West as a meeting ground where different cultures clash or cooperate.

"It's the story of convergence that's the essence of the American West," he says, "and what we can learn from the successes and failures of that convergence."

Finley had spent five years running the Milwaukee Public Museum, a venerable natural history and science museum that he was hired to rescue from financial woes so severe that no established professional in the field would touch the job.

Until then he'd been a career politician and government administrator who was midway through his fourth four-year term as Waukesha County executive, a nonpartisan elective office that holds the administrative reins for a suburban Wisconsin community of about 380,000 residents.

When he arrived in 2005, the Milwaukee museum was more than $8 million in the hole and its staff of 240 had been cut nearly in half during the preceeding few months after revelations that its leaders had spent it to the verge of bankruptcy. Finley steered the county-owned institution out of debt through ramped-up fundraising, and attendance gains from such touring blockbusters as "Body Worlds" and a show of artifacts from the Titanic. Eventually, he began rebuilding the depleted staff.

"He brought a combination of skills perfect for the situation," says Michael Grebe, who heads a private charitable foundation that donates heavily to the museum and served on a government-appointed oversight board tasked with making sure that bailout bank loans guaranteed by Milwaukee County were not misspent. Staff members were anxious at first because Finley had no museum experience, Grebe said, but "he won them over. He's a very good listener, and he tends to have a low-key way of dealing with people."

Finley says it was love, not money or ambition, that prompted him to uproot his life at age 52. His wife, Jenifer, a career nonprofit manager, had spent several childhood years in south Orange County, and from the time they married, the husband says, "it was always part of the deal that someday we would move West."

Those plans accelerated last fall, when Jenifer was hired as executive director of Casa Romantica, a historic home in San Clemente that's a community cultural center. Dan's subsequent hunt for a Southern California museum job ended in July with an offer from the Autry. He succeeded the retired John Gray, who was a banking executive before coming to the Autry in 1999.

The Finleys own a condo in Dana Point, but on work nights he's staying in a rented apartment in Glendale until they figure out how to bridge the remaining 60 miles or so.

Jackie Autry, who founded the museum with her famed husband, singing-cowboy actor Gene Autry, and who remains a crucial benefactor, described Finley in an e-mail: "All in all, he is a leader, consensus builder, financially knowledgeable … and works well with both staff and trustees for the common good." The former co-owner of baseball's Angels said it didn't hurt that he came recommended by one of Milwaukee's leading citizens, Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig.

"I said 'yes' instantly, before I had a salary offer," said Finley, who declined to say how much he'll earn at the Autry (Gray was paid $258,000 in 2008; in Milwaukee, Finley's compensation totaled $210,000 in 2008-09, according to the museums' most recent available federal tax returns). "I had been looking at other museums but this is the preeminent one."

The Autry's attractions, from a manager's perspective, include its debt-free status and Jackie Autry's generosity. She has pledged $6 million a year toward operating costs for the rest of her life (expenses totaled about $17 million a year in both 2008 and 2009, according to the Autry's financial statements). After her death, her $125 million in endowment bequests will continue to yield about $6 million a year for the museum, assuming a 5% annual return.

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