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A Call to Keep the Southwest, Autry Separate

TIMES ART CRITIC

In March, when word spread that the Autry Museum of Western Heritage might take over the Southwest Museum, dissolving them both into a National Center for Western Heritage, the awful symbolism was hard to miss. The cowboys were conquering the Indians. Again.

The Southwest is the oldest museum in Los Angeles, founded in 1907 by legendary polymath Charles Fletcher Lummis, and it houses one of the nation’s great collections of baskets, pottery, blankets, dance costumes and other American Indian art from the Plains, the Southwest and California. It occupies a historic building at the edge of Mount Washington and is home to an exceptional research library, which is a critical source for much new scholarship in the field. The Southwest’s finances, long precarious, have only recently stabilized.

The Autry is a wealthy young museum, founded in 1988 by the late cowboy entertainer and businessman Gene Autry, to chronicle “the West as myth and reality.” The museum owns lots of Hollywood cowboy memorabilia, a spotty collection of 19th century western artifacts and some inconsequential cowboy art. An ugly building was erected on public land in the northeast corner of Griffith Park, over the objection of the Sierra Club and the city’s own Parks and Recreation Department. After 13 years in operation the museum can’t yet claim a distinguished record of scholarly achievement.

What the Autry does have is an endowment of $100 million, plus the likelihood of much more from the huge estate left by its founder, as well as hopes for a brighter, more intellectually challenging future. So, with cash-rich cowboy enthusiasts in one museum and a stellar collection of Indian art (conservatively valued at $300 million) in another, the idea of a marriage was hatched.

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Perfect match, right?

Well, not so fast. There are good reasons the Autry is without much credibility as a serious cultural history museum, and one of them goes straight to that image of cowboys conquering Indians. The joys of opportunistic conquest have been enshrined at the Autry since the day the museum opened, making for more than idle symbolism.

The museum’s roster of permanent displays includes large galleries enthusiastically devoted to “The Spirit of Opportunity” and “The Spirit of Conquest,” as white settlers from the East pushed west into vast continental territories occupied for thousands of years by indigenous tribal civilizations. Whose opportunity? And whose conquest? Needless to say, the settlers, not the indigenous tribes, are the ones whose “spirit” is being proclaimed as a conceptual framework.

Yes, the Autry does plan to scrap these gruesome displays and wants to liberalize its outlook. (“Out of the Mists,” a modest but pleasant current temporary exhibition of traditional Indian art from the Pacific Northwest, is one example.) But there’s a big difference between plans and accomplishments, hopes for the future and an established record. If you’re an American Indian--and even if you’re not--you’ll be forgiven for worrying about an institution founded on celebrating social and cultural subjugation as a vital principle.

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In fact, a takeover of the Southwest by the Autry is a very bad idea, regardless of the Autry’s past deeds or future plans. It’s hardly radical to note that America’s culturally diverse history has almost always been told from the point of view of the conquerors. What’s at stake now is a singular chance to reverse part of that standard polarity. For if the Southwest Museum loses its independence through a merger, what also vanishes is the potential for American Indians themselves to take charge of this extraordinary portion of their own patrimony.

Here’s why: Patrons and benefactors shape museums. Suddenly, with the explosive growth of Indian gaming among more than 70 tribes spread from California to Connecticut, unprecedented wealth is flowing into tribal coffers. The Southwest, for the first time since it was founded nearly 100 years ago, can now begin to actively look to Indian tribal councils for financial support in the preservation and study of American Indian art and its history.

Certainly there are obstacles to the emergence of Indian cultural philanthropy as a significant new activity. Health, education, housing and other long-standing tribal concerns are pressing and expensive, making funding competition fierce. There’s also competition from Washington, D.C., where the Smithsonian’s federal Museum of the American Indian, scheduled to open in 2003, is actively soliciting private funds.

More complex is a deep cultural distinction. The very idea of the museum as a repository for important cultural objects derives from European traditions, which are different from practices in indigenous American societies. Conceptually, significant Indian support for a significant museum of Indian art is not as seamless as it might at first appear.

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Still, these are obstacles that can be overcome. The Southwest’s modest $5-million endowment needs to be quadrupled, but its measured expansion over time is hardly an inconceivable philanthropic goal. American Indians are poised to transform the historic conditions of their own communities, and--culturally--an independent Southwest Museum could be a linchpin in that budding movement.

In this regard, the Southwest’s independence is an asset nearly as important as its precious collections. Major public holdings of American Indian art are often affiliated with federal or state governments--like the Heye collection in New York, now part of the Smithsonian. While the Autry is not a government agency, a merger would still rob the Southwest of self-governance.

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In a merger the Autry would control the Southwest, regardless of the composition of any joint governing board, and despite the proposed establishment of an umbrella organization--a National Center for Western Heritage--concocted to unite the two. Ask yourself a question: If one partner in a union is bringing mostly money to the table, and the other is bringing cultural credibility, which partner will be in charge? The one wrapped in the stunning array of Navajo blankets, or the one who holds the purse strings?

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Emblematic of this difference between the Autry and the Southwest is the choice of director hired by each board of trustees to implement its cultural mandate. Both are men of accomplishment in their respective fields. Those fields, however, are miles apart.

Duane King, Southwest director since 1995, used to head the Heye collection. He’s former assistant director of the Smithsonian’s Museum of the American Indian, founding director of a historical museum on the Warm Springs Reservation in Oregon and a widely respected scholar of Cherokee culture.

The Autry’s founding director was Autry family friend Joanne Hale, wife of cowboy movie actor Monte Hale. She was succeeded two years ago by John L. Gray, a deputy in the Small Business Administration and former executive vice president of real estate for First Interstate Bank.

Appointing a real estate banker to direct a cultural history museum strains at the institution’s credibility. The disparity in professional leadership is reason enough to oppose the takeover.

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The unprecedented, untapped potential for Indian involvement in the Southwest Museum makes it unthinkable. Today, even though Los Angeles has the largest urban Indian population in the nation, only three Indians serve on the Southwest’s 30-member board. Philanthropy would change that.

American Indian philanthropy directed toward a great independent museum of American Indian art is finally about autonomy, not assimilation. So, when it comes to the symbolic image of cowboys conquering Indians that inevitably arises in an Autry takeover of the Southwest, let’s turn the tables for a moment. Picture the awesome struggle currently underway. Imagine what it could mean if, this time, the Indians were to ride triumphantly to the rescue, rather than the cavalry.


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