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Southwest Museum to Remain in L.A. : Institutions: Board rejects 80 offers and decides to stay in current facility after officials promise to help expand and improve it.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

After three years of emotional debate over whether it should find a new home, the cramped and venerable Southwest Museum announced Tuesday that it will stay put after all.

“The current location was always considered to be a finalist, against which we would judge all other offers,” said Thomas Wilson, executive director of the museum, which has been at the foot of Mt. Washington in northeast Los Angeles since 1914.

In choosing Los Angeles, the museum board rejected about 80 other offers, ranging from Ventura’s aggressive bid to an offer from a Fillmore rancher willing to ante up 20 acres and a Chumash ceremonial ground.

But Wilson said the museum board was swayed by a promise from the city to establish a blue-ribbon committee to help it expand and improve its present location. A key element of Los Angeles’ bid, Wilson said, was a promise to support bond issues to fund museums and to help secure a museum stop on the Blue Line light-rail extension.

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Wilson said the city also is helping the institution acquire some nearby buildings that will ease the space crunch that has plagued the museum for years.

Founded in 1907 by Charles Lummis, a colorful historian and art expert who was, among other things, the first city editor of the Los Angeles Times, the museum houses one of the nation’s best-known collections of Native American art. Local lore has it that the museum was the product of a long walk Lummis took from Cincinnati to Los Angeles in the 1880s; during the trek, he fell in love with Native American art of the Southwest and became an avid collector.

At first, anthropologists considered Lummis’ pieces to be more a collection of curios than high art. But with time, they became much more valuable from scholarly and financial standpoints. In 1992, a single poncho was appraised at $250,000.

Unfortunately for the museum, however, that value never has garnered the sort of fame that translates into financial support. One former curator said in 1992 that the museum was hampered, not only by its out-of-the-way locale and stiff competition from other museums, but by its “reputation as a funny old place.”

The Southwest has remained a standby for school field trips and visiting scholars, and draws about 60,000 visitors a year. But as time has passed, officials said, it has outgrown its imposing Spanish-style headquarters.

In the mid-1980s, a move was made to merge the collection with that of the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, but it was dropped in the face of public opposition. In 1991, the museum’s long-range planning committee hired a consultant to examine its problems. The study concluded that the best way for the museum to improve attendance and generate new donations was to find a new home.

A new site, the consultant said, would cost about $35 million, but would allow the museum to update its facility and exhibit a larger percentage of its 250,000-piece collection, of which only 5% is on view. When the museum board issued a request this summer for proposals for a new site, it received scores of responses, the most enthusiastic from Ventura County, where seven cities expressed interest in the museum.

But when directors announced that they would need at least $35 million to construct a building, only Thousand Oaks and Ventura remained in the bidding, and only the latter city completely followed through, Wilson said.

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“I had a feeling they were just trying to drum up support for the home crowd,” Thousand Oaks City Councilman Frank Schillo said. “The game is to say that a famous museum is interested in relocating, and then see what you can get.”

But Wilson said the debate was not a ploy to play one place off against another. “We were honestly looking at the best alternative for the museum,” he said.


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