Holding signs that read, “Autry: Free the Southwest Museum!” and chanting “Open the doors!” a group of activists gathered Wednesday morning in front of the locked gate to the pedestrian tunnel at the Southwest Museum to express their disappointment with the Autry “Cowboy” Museum.
“The Friends of the Southwest Museum Coalition found evidence that the Autry has received at least $10.5 million in taxpayer funds from the state of California and FEMA for the Southwest Museum building and collection,” said Nicole Possert, spokesperson for the coalition. They claim the funding was awarded with the understanding that it would be used to re-open the facility to the public.
The coalition is demanding that the Autry, the Southwest Museum’s managing partner since 2003, unlock the doors to Los Angeles’ first museum and the original home of valuable collections of Native American, Southwestern and Meso-American art and artifacts.
“The Autry is failing miserably to share the Southwest Museum’s wonderful collection with the taxpaying public,” said Possert.
The Friends coalition has been battling for years to get the Autry to reopen the Southwest Museum site as a full working museum, with all its original collections, as it was when it merged with the Autry. They have repeatedly opposed efforts to re-open the museum on a smaller scale, or to convert its use for other types of projects or programming.
“This is the heart of our area, it has been for almost 100 years, since it first opened in 1914,” said Ivonne Sarceda, a coalition leader.
“We say ‘open these doors’ because this tunnel takes you to the museum,” Sarceda said as she stood in front of the museum’s locked doors.
However, 10 years after it was first closed, the Southwest Museum re-opened Oct. 19 for one day a week.
“The way they [the Autry] are showing their gratitude to taxpayers is by only opening the museum 6 hours each Saturday. Most of the museums in Los Angeles are open 6 days a week,” said Possert.
Diana Barnwell, a former Southwest Museum board member, said in a letter dated Nov. 11, 2013 and addressed to the Friends of the Southwest Museum coalition, that the museum’s structural problems evolved after the 1994 Northridge earthquake. The Southwest Museum Caracol Tower’s concrete walls were cracked, there was concrete beam damage where the Tower joins the main museum building and some minor roof tile damage, she detailed in her statement,
“When FEMA officials visited the Southwest Museum they agreed with our Board and management that the damage to the building was repairable,” said Barnwell in the letter the Friends group distributed at its press conference on Tuesday.
When the Autry became a partner, they stated in writing that they would use $1,206,555 in FEMA funds to restore the Southwest Museum to its “original glory.” In the years following, the Autry asked for more funds from FEMA and the state to repair the Southwest Museum, and to relocate its vast collections, according to Barnwell.
W. Richard West Jr., president and CEO of the Autry, told EGP Wednesday that the money they received from FEMA and a Proposition 40 grant from the California Cultural and Historical Endowment has already been spent on the museum, but it was not enough to complete all the work needed.
“We have taken about 85 percent of the collection out of the museum to preserve it, to prevent the intrusion of moisture, and it has been placed in other areas” such as the Griffith Park, he said.
West told EGP that it’s not yet possible to open the museum full-time. In June 2013, Los Angeles County engineers estimated that $25 to $41 million will be needed to complete repairs to the museum. The Autry, he said, is reaching out to the state and private sources to come up with the money, he said.
West added, however, that the Autry has no plans for returning the Southwest Museum collections to the Mount Washington site, even if the money is found to complete needed repairs. “We have to be realistic that this [Southwest Museum] is not a 21st century museum,” West said. “The museum will be used for an array [of other things], for programming, lectures, presentations and more,” he asdded.
Both sides are working with residents in the area, organizations and council members to push for their plan for the future of the museum. It has been a contentious issue for many years.
“We need to stop litigating and come to an agreement,” said West, citing the support they are now receiving from some of the Autry’s former opponents who now say they are willing to accept a scaled down version of the museum.
But members of the Friends coalition say assertions that the Southwest Museum in Mount Washington is no longer a suitable site for a museum are dead wrong.
“It has been proven … that this museum has many things that are positive for running as a successful museum, said Ann Walnum co-founder of the coalition. She said the opening of a Gold Line station adjacent to the museum has extended its reach to people from all over L.A. County, who now “can get here by rail.”
“With the merger of the Autry and the Southwest Museum, our top priority has been to properly care for and maintain the collection after decades of neglect, with the goal of making the collection accessible for research, exhibits, and programs in Los Angeles for decades to come,” said West.