Council Approves Autry Plans and City-led ‘Working Group’ On Southwest Museum

Autry’s renovation plans get the go-ahead, city hopes to continue discussions regarding a long-range plan for both museums.

By Gloria Angelina Castillo, EGP Staff Writer

A decision to allow renovations of the Autry National Center located in Griffith Park, was upheld on Tuesday by the Los Angeles City Council, which also denied the appeal of a local resident who charged proper environmental review laws had not been followed.

Councilmember Ed P. Reyes cast the lone dissenting vote on the 12-1 decision to deny the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) appeal. On a separate 10 to 3 vote, the council let stand a Department of Recreation and Parks Board of Commissioner’s decision to allow the Autry to move forward with its $6.6 million facility renovation.

The Council’s decision disappointed a coalition of Northeast Los Angeles residents and organizations that has repeatedly tried to tie attempts by the Autry to expand its facilities to the future of the Southwest Museum of the American Indian located on Mount Washington.

The Autry and the Southwest Museum merged in 2003, but the relationship has been rife with mistrust and accusations of unfulfilled promises.

After refusing to put their commitment to the Southwest Museum in a “prenuptial agreement, …the wedding was off, ” Councilmember Jose Huizar (CD-14) told the council, explaining the long held disagreements between the Friends of the Southwest Museum Coalition and the Autry.

Huizar and Reyes, whose districts include the areas surrounding the Southwest Museum, and Councilmember Tom LaBonge (CD-4) whose district includes the Autry, don’t necessarily agree on what’s best for the two facilities, but they put their differences aside on Tuesday and proposed to continue discussions on the future of both museums.

Ann Walnum of the Friends of the Southwest Museum Coalition, speaks at Tiesday’s city council meeting on behalf of the Mt. Washington museum. (EGP photo by Gloria Angelina Castillo)

In a motion made by Huizar and seconded by Reyes and LaBonge, the council instructed the Chief Legislative Analyst to convene a working group comprised of representatives from the Department of Recreation and Parks, the City Administrative Office, the City Attorney, and council districts 1, 4, and 14 to engage in formal discussions with the Autry, museum experts, stakeholders and community groups.

“Hopefully, as we move forward, though we are not going to get married, we can sit down together and think about how we need to move forward,” Huizar said.

The goal would be to develop long-range plans for the Autry in Griffith Park, and for the Southwest Museum and Casa de Adobe sites in Northeast LA. The working group would review the lease renewal process for the Autry, which sits on city land; the merger agreement between the Autry and the Southwest Museum and ways to implement its mandates; and identify revenue sources for renovating and operating the Southwest Museum. The group would report back to the Arts, Parks, Health and Aging Committee, and Budget and Finance Committees within 60 days on their findings.

The council’s decisions are not a victory for the city, said Nicole Possert, chair of Friends of the Southwest Coalition.

Possert said the council was “co-opted” into making their decisions because they did not want to be “perceived as loosing money for the city.” If the Proposition 84 funds did not go to the Autry, they would have gone to another grant applicant in the city, she said.

Possert says she’s not impressed by calls for more discussion. “They have plans, they don’t have plans. I mean talk is cheap. They’ve not put anything in writing,” she said.

At Monday’s Arts, Parks and Health and Aging Committee, the Autry proposed a partnership and a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that would allow Los Angeles to take legal possession of the Southwest Museum and building. Though the offer might at first appear generous, it does not include an offer to return the museum’s 500,000 pieces of Native American art and artifacts, or resources to once again make the Mount Washington site a real destination, she said.

She says the Autry’s offer is a “sham.”

“It’s not significant enough for any partner to build something viable in that location,” she told EGP.
Autry CEO and President Daniel Finley, however, welcomed Council President Eric Garcetti’s offer that the city help secure funds to pay for repairs to the historic museum.

Finely told the council that their studies show it will take a “staggering” $25 million to “make the old Southwest building viable as a museum,” which he says is the root of the ongoing conflict. “…Who should pay for it? So far no one has stepped up,” he said.

When asked if the Autry has applied for grants to repair the Southwest Museum, Finley told EGP the Autry’s priority has not been the building, but the collection.

He said the Autry’s number one and top priority has always been to preserve the Southwest Museum’s collections, which they have received both private and public funds to do.

“So our priority to date has been making sure that the collection isn’t at risk [of deterioration or damage] which you heard [during public comment from Autry employees] it clearly has been at risk.”

The Friends of the Southwest Museum are concerned that the Autry wants to hold on to both the Southwest Museum’s collections and the rights to the Southwest Museum name, while divesting itself of any financial responsibility for the Mt. Washington sites. If they are no longer affiliated with the sites, they should give up the collections and the names, say Southwest Museum supporters, who hope to one day find a viable partner to run the facility.

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June 23, 2011  Copyright © 2012 Eastern Group Publications, Inc.

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