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Southwest Museum has first show since '06, but its future is uncertain

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The Southwest Museum in Mount Washington will open its first exhibition in seven years when “Four Centuries of Pueblo Pottery”  goes on display Saturday, with free admission.

Like most things involving the site, the show is fraught with uncertainty and controversy, none of it having to do with the artistry and cultural history on display.

More than 100 vessels, bowls, jars, figurines and other objects from the Southwest’s highly regarded collection of Native American art and artifacts will be on view in a 2,200-square-foot space, Sprague Auditorium.

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But the show will be open just six hours a week -- Saturdays only, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. -- because the Southwest Museum remains something of a stepchild to its parent, the Autry National Center of the American West.

The Autry, which became the Southwest's custodian in 2002, closed its galleries in mid-2006 to use them as a staging area for a massive collection conservation project. It's finished, allowing for limited programming to resume.

The Pueblo ceramics, arrayed by different language groups among the tribes, join a small display of collection highlights that went on view in the 99-year-old museum’s lobby in May 2012. There’s been little fanfare around the new exhibition’s opening.

The Autry remains primarily invested in the museum it has been operating in Griffith Park since 1988, along with a Burbank collection storage and research facility it acquired in 2010. Most of its collection is now stored in Burbank, including the huge, high-quality Native American trove amassed over the decades by the Southwest Museum.

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The Autry took over the financially ailing Southwest Museum in a merger that kept the Southwest's prized collection in Los Angeles at a time when it was feared it would be scattered to museums in other cities.

In recent years, Autry leaders consistently have said that their enterprise can’t afford to fully operate and staff the Mount Washington building. They envision other cultural or educational organizations occupying most of the Southwest Museum site, with the Autry maintaining a limited exhibition presence.

None of this has sat well with neighborhood groups that want the Southwest Museum to thrive as a showcase for Native American cultures while fulfilling its potential as an economic boon for area businesses and jobs.

To them, the Autry’s stewardship has been motivated by opportunism -- acquiring a collection that substantially raised its prestige, without fulfilling what critics say was an obligation, under the merger’s terms, to keep the Southwest functioning as a museum.

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The battle has significantly shaped the Autry’s recent course. In 2009, Southwest Museum supporters thwarted plans for a $175-million makeover and expansion of the Griffith Park museum that would have doubled its size. They persuaded City council members to withhold approval for the expansion unless the Autry guaranteed it would keep the Southwest Museum operating “in perpetuity.”

The Autry withdrew the plan, and in 2010 unveiled a new one: acquiring the Burbank site for collection storage, a library and curartorial offices, thus freeing up space in Griffith Park for additional galleries without needing the extensive environmental impact studies and permits required to expand.

In 2011 the City Council OKd renovations, mainly funded by a $6.6-million state grant, that are now underway to transform existing lower-level galleries into a major permanent exhibit of the Native American holdings.

Homeowners' groups in Mount Washington and Highland Park sued the city in 2011 for permitting the renovation, saying officials should have required a comprehensive environmental impact report because carving out space for Native American displays in Griffith Park will set off a domino effect that renders the Southwest Museum redundant and hastens its abandonment as a museum.

The plaintiffs say that result would improperly conflict with the city’s own master plan, which identifies the Southwest Museum as an important cultural site.

A related suit contends that the Board of Recreation and Parks Commissioners, which administers the Autry’s $1-a-year lease on the land beneath its Griffith Park site, failed to give legally required advance notice of the meeting in which it OKd the gallery renovations. Both suits were dismissed in Los Angeles Superior Court, but are being appealed.

Daniel Wright, a harsh critic of the Autry’s handling of the Southwest Museum, said Thursday that the new Pueblo pottery exhibit is “a complete bare minimum effort” that the Autry grudgingly has made because it was obligated to reopen the museum in return for having received federal funds to help repair damage to the Southwest site from the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

W. Richard West Jr., the Autry’s president, issued a written response Thursday, saying the Pueblo exhibition “reflects our ongoing interest in making the collections more accessible, building stronger relations with the city and local community, and working together with them to identify partners to help chart a future course for the Autry’s Mt. Washington campus.”

Autry spokeswoman Maren Dougherty said “no other future exhibitions are planned at this time” for the Southwest Museum, but that the Autry is “developing plans to honor” next year’s 100th anniversary of its opening. 

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She said the Autry has a new partnership with the architecture school of Woodbury University, where master’s degree candidates “are working on a project to imagine the future of the building as a multi-use community facility.”

For now, said Nicole Possert, who chairs the Friends of the Southwest Museum Coalition, an umbrella group for advocates of the museum’s full revival, the Pueblo Indian pottery “will be stunning to see, but this exhibit used to be on display six days a week" rather than six hours. "The downside is that there’s not much more.”

For the record, Oct. 18, 12:07 p.m.: An earlier version of this post incorrectly spelled the last name of Autry National Center spokeswoman Maren Dougherty.

ALSO:

New Autry chief executive saddles up for challenging task

Southwest Museum's prospects dim for festive 100th birthday

'Art of the West' inaugurates the Autry's new permanent gallery

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