Autry Renovation Plan, and Southwest Museum’s Future, Still Tied In Limbo

No decision reached by council committee reviewing Autry’s plan.

By Gloria Angelina Castillo, EGP Staff Writer

Councilmembers Ed Reyes (CD-1) and Tom LaBonge (CD-4) who represent opposing interests for two merged museums, met during a special Parks, Health and Aging Committee meeting on June 3 for a public hearing on renovation plans for one of the entities.

No decision, however, was reached on the Autry National Center Museum of the American West’s expansion plan for its Griffith Park site, because the committee’s third, tie-braking member, Councilman Herb Wesson, was not in attendance.

The hearing was scheduled after the City Council voted to take jurisdiction over the Autry’s $6.6 million renovation plan approved by the Board of Recreation and Parks Commission following complaints from Northeast Los Angeles residents who said they were not given an opportunity to speak on the item because they had been removed from the Board’s meeting agenda notification email list without their knowledge.

Local activists, including about 50 who attended last week’s meeting, say they are concerned the renovation of the Griffith Park museum will doom the Southwest Museum’s reopening in Mt. Washington. For years, they have pushed the City Council to tie the Autry’s plans to expand to the fate of the Southwest Museum. Their efforts have garnered more support over the last year, particularly from Councilmembers Jose Huizar and Reyes.

Jesse Rojas, Nicole Possert and Tony Butka listen as Darryl Ramos-Young speaks to the Committee. (Photo by Martha Benedict)

“Why was the Southwest Museum and Casa de Adobe not included in the [state] grant application? How soon can we get a copy of the complete expansion plan for the Autry? Is Southwest Museum and Casa de Adobe included in the plans?” Reyes grilled Daniel Finely, president and CEO of the Autry National Center, at the special committee meeting.

Finely declined to answer Reyes’ questions saying they weren’t relevant to the Autry’s renovation project, which could lose a state grant to help pay for the renovation if discussion on the project is prolonged.

“Our hope all along has been to display portions of the Southwest Museum collection in our Griffith Park museum,” Finely previously told EGP in a written statement.

The Friends of the Southwest Museum Coalition praised Reyes for putting Finley on the spot and on the record. The group says the Autry has failed to live up to it’s 2003 merger agreement, and claims the Autry is stealing the Southwest Museum’s vast collections of Native American and Southwest artifacts. The Southwest Museum was officially closed to the public in 2010.

Dan Wright is an attorney and member of the Coalition. He says the Coalition has always feared the Autry would not live up to its promise to continue operating the museum. The group, which boasts about 75 member organizations, has worked hard to keep the issue in the public eye.

What will happen next is unclear.

“There was no decision, and there’s some confusion as to what happens next,” Wright said following last week’s committee meeting.

“I thought it was unfortunate that the Autry didn’t have an answer [to Reyes’ questions]. Really, you can’t answer a basic question?” Nicole Possert, coalition chairperson, said regarding Finley’s refusal to address questions related to the Southwest Museum.

According to Wright, the issue could be heard again by the committee, or returned to the full City Council without a recommendation. The committee is scheduled to meet on June 14.

Wright said the Council’s decision to assume jurisdiction was a tremendous victory for the public and for transparency.

Recreation and Parks Commission President Barry Sanders, however, denied allegations that critics of the Autry had been deliberately deleted from the commission’s email list, but acknowledged there was a “glitch” in the notification system. He said the commission did not violate the Brown Act.

“Apparently, there was some glitch in terms of a voluntary special notification that is done, not by the Department of Recreation and Parks, but the Technology Department of the city. But we gave it all of our ordinary notice, there were speakers there on behalf of it, they had notice… but it was a regular meeting of the board and with all the normal notice,” he told EGP.

Sanders said he has been a long-time supporter of the Southwest Museum and donor to the museum when it was independent and trying to remain independent. “I like the SW Museum very much,” he said on Tuesday.

Sanders said the Autry’s project was just another matter on the agenda, and implied larger ramifications could be involved. “Now, if someone wants to go another way, that has other power, that’s their business. But we did what we were supposed to do,” he said.

Coalition members had hoped a meeting a few months ago with the Autry to discuss potential partners to operate the Mt. Washington site would lead to its reopening, but there was never any follow up, Possert said.

“Yes, they are looking, but the 100-lb question is who is going to operate a facility and market it as the Southwest Museum? And that, in some ways, is allowing the Autry to get out from under some of their responsibilities in the merger agreement to maintain [it] as a separate facility and identity under their umbrella,” she said.

The merger never stipulated the relocation of the Southwest Museum to the Griffith Park location, its expansion was an option but not its relocation. The identity and facilities of the Southwest Museum were to be maintained separate, Possert said. “People think we’re making facts up,” she said, adding people can read the merger for themselves on the coalition’s website.

Reyes would like the Autry’s grant deadline extended in order to review the scope of the project, according to Monica Valencia, the councilman’s spokesperson.

Reyes is trying to work with Sen. Kevin De Leon, the author of Prop 84, which will fund the grant, in regards to the funding, or creating an extension including the Southwest Museum in the scope of project, according to Valencia.

“Right now, they are looking at negotiating, ideally we don’t want the Autry to loose money,” she said.
The Southwest Museum is the city’s first museum and keeping it open and functioning, as a feasible and successful venue, is important to Reyes, Valencia added.

Like many Angelenos, Reyes fondly remembers visiting the museum as a child.

The councilman “has great concerns regarding the Southwest Museum, especially because our communities don’t have access to such an important collection,” Valencia said.

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June 9, 2011  Copyright © 2012 Eastern Group Publications, Inc.

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