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City Council creates 'working group' for Southwest Museum issues

The L.A. City Council creates a 'working group' to work toward a solution of dispute between Southwest Museum supporters and the Autry National Center.

June 06, 2012|By Mike Boehm, Los Angeles Times
  • The Southwest Museum has been largely closed since 2006.
The Southwest Museum has been largely closed since 2006. (Irfan Khan, Los Angeles…)

One of Los Angeles' longest-running and most adversarial cultural disputes — over the future of the Southwest Museum in Mount Washington, and its prized collection of Native American artifacts — has a chance of shifting to a less contentious footing.

Supporters of the Southwest Museum have been trying for years to force its stepparent, the Autry National Center of the American West, to revive the castle-like, 98-year-old site as a vibrant showcase for the collection. Meanwhile, they have tried to block the Autry from shifting Native American exhibits to the Autry Museum in Griffith Park.

Southwest advocates lost a round on May 23 when a Los Angeles Superior Court judge rejected a lawsuit aimed at blocking the Autry's bid to create its first permanent Griffith Park exhibition of the Native American artifacts.

But on June 1, the City Council voted 11-0 to give peace a chance, by creating a new "working group" that, if successful, might set the stubborn dispute on a more cooperative footing.

The panel of city officials and community "stakeholders," including Southwest Museum advocates and Autry officials, is being asked to develop "agreed-upon goals" for funding and exhibitions at both sites. The council asked for a status report within 60 days.

"We're very optimistic" that the working group will mean progress toward the Southwest's revival, Nicole Possert, one of the leaders of the Friends of the Southwest Museum Coalition, said.

Daniel Finley, the Autry's president, backed the working group's creation, saying in a letter to City Council President Herb Wesson that it's "the best way for us collectively to find and support an honorable future" for the Southwest Museum.

Ideally, said Luke Swetland, the Autry's vice president for planning and special projects, the working group will help bring in potential donors, and alert other cultural or educational nonprofits the Autry hopes will want to share the Southwest site.

While running two museums "is more than we can do on our own," Swetland said, it's not true that the Autry aims to shutter the Southwest Museum and hijack its collection to Griffith Park — as Southwest supporters have sometimes alleged since 2003, when the Autry took over the financially weak Southwest in a merger.

The Southwest Museum had been largely closed since 2006, while the Autry fixed earthquake damage and used the galleries as a staging ground for a $9-million conservation project on the Native American collection that's still in progress.

In mid-May, after more than two years without any public access to the site, the lobby opened on a Saturdays-only basis; on display is a sampling of artifacts that illustrate the conservation program. Autry officials say that the site's partial revival will continue with the planned 2013 reopening of the 2,200-square-foot Sprague Hall for an exhibition of Pueblo Indian pottery.

But the main display of Native American artifacts would shift to Griffith Park, where a $6.6-million, state-funded remodeling project will yield 18,000 square feet of exhibition space for the site's first permanent Native American exhibits.

The Board of Recreation and Parks Commissioners — the Autry's Griffith Park landlord — OK'd the renovations last year, as did the City Council. But the Highland Park Heritage Trust and the Mount Washington Homeowners Alliance sued to rescind the permits, arguing that the project was not a simple remodeling job, but part of a larger scheme to permanently cripple the Southwest Museum. They contended that any project that threatens the Southwest Museum would violate the city's master plan for northeast Los Angeles, which identifies the Southwest as an important community asset.

Judge James C. Chalfant ruled that city officials had acted properly in treating the proposed gallery renovation as a separate project rather than as the first domino in a larger chain that would subvert the Southwest Museum.

A second lawsuit that remains undecided contends that the Recreation and Parks commissioners' approval of the renovations should be rescinded because board members failed to give legally required advance notice of their hearing on the matter.

Daniel Wright, the attorney representing plaintiff Ann Walnum, said that Southwest Museum supporters want a replay of the hearing, so they can raise "lots of issues the board didn't hear" the first time.


Southwest Museum's conservation plan draws closer to completion

Southwest Museum supporters sue city, fearing site's extinction

Autry to remodel, creating Native American galleries in Griffith Park and annex in Burbank

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