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Autry and Southwest museums seal a deal

Times Staff Writer

Leaders of the Autry and Southwest museums, who delayed their merger efforts last month when the Southwest’s neighbors called for reassurances over the fate of its historic Mount Washington building, have not only mended fences with the community but sealed details of their partnership with a joint-board vote.

The vote embracing the merger, conducted over a series of meetings March 3, 4 and 6, moves the merger from questions of whether and how to a question of when, committing the museums to their first joint exhibition in October.

The deal also charts plans to add 20,000 square feet of exhibition space and 20,000 square feet of viewable storage space at the Autry site in Griffith Park to make room for parts of Southwest’s vast collection of art and artifacts.

The result, said John Gray, formerly executive director of the Autry Museum and now executive director of the Autry National Center of the American West, should be “a much more expanded view of the American West” than either museum could offer alone.

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In disclosing their decision Thursday, Autry leaders stopped short of making guarantees about the fate of the Southwest’s longtime home on Mount Washington. But the facility will remain open for the foreseeable future, and in meetings and correspondence with neighborhood activists, they have pledged their best efforts not only to preserve the historic buildings there but keep them open to the public, ideally as a venue for temporary exhibitions.

To cover costs of the merger, Autry officials say they plan to raise $100 million over the next five years, including $38 million to boost the center’s endowment and an estimated $15 million to restore and renovate the Southwest buildings.

The most dramatic public sign of the merger will come Oct. 3, when the Autry will open an exhibition titled “Glorious Treasures: 100 Years of Collecting at the Southwest Museum.”

Under the merger, each museum retains a separate public identity and curatorial staff. Duane King remains as executive director of the Southwest, with a national search planned to find a scholar to head the Autry museum. But both museums will operate as subsidiaries of the Autry National Center of the American West, headed by Gray.

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That center will control finances of the two museums, along with an Institute for the Study of the American West, which will serve as the research arm for both museums. That institute will be headed by Stephen Aron, a UCLA history professor and specialist in the frontier. He will remain on the UCLA faculty.

The enlarged institution will be governed by a board of directors that includes nine patrons from the Autry museum’s preexisting board and three from the Southwest’s. In addition, about 60 other Autry board members and about 20 Southwest board members will carry less weighty governance functions as trustees of the new center.

Neighborhood resistance had melted over the last month, said Nicole Possert, chairwoman of Friends of the Southwest Museum Coalition, as museum leaders had laid out a picture of how impoverished the Southwest Museum had become and how few alternatives there were to the Autry stepping in. In addition, Possert said, Autry’s leaders have persuaded her and others that they’ll make a good-faith effort to revive the Southwest building as a vital public space.

“There’s been a back-and-forth dialogue with the community, a getting-to-know-you process. We really appreciate that they took the time to do that with us,” said Possert.

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The Autry was founded in 1988 with the mission of exploring Western history alongside the pop-culture mythology of the region. Its plump bank accounts include a $100-million endowment donated in 2000 by Jackie Autry, widow of singing cowboy Gene Autry.

Until now, much of the museum’s 51,000-item collection has focused on reality and myth of the cowboy in American culture, from old maps to souvenirs from Gene Autry’s career in radio, television and films.

The Southwest Museum, the oldest museum in the city of Los Angeles, was founded in 1907 and moved to its current site in 1914. Its collection of Native American art and artifacts, much of it amassed in the institution’s early years under the leadership of founder Charles Fletcher Lummis, amounts to some 350,000 items, from textiles to pottery. But in recent decades, the museum has struggled with tight money and management scandals, unable to attract major donations from its own trustees or other sources.

The two institutions, which have flirted for a decade, have been in detailed negotiations since late 2002, and since January, the Autry has underwritten the Southwest’s operating costs of more than $100,000 monthly.

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The museums had set their first joint board meeting for Feb. 20. But when neighbors of the Southwest packed a Feb. 10 community meeting and pelted Gray and King with skeptical questions about the future of the Southwest’s buildings and collection, museum officials delayed further steps until more talks with neighborhood leaders could be held.

The neighborhood leaders, meanwhile, secured a Feb. 14 City Council resolution that urged Autry leaders to make preservation of public programming a priority at the Southwest site.

The Southwest building complex, plagued by deferred maintenance needs, has drawn paltry attendance in recent years. This summer, however, a light rail stop on the new L.A.-Pasadena Gold Line is expected to open at the foot of the museum’s hill.

In a pledge to the community dated Feb. 25, Gray and King wrote that “the National Center envisions that the Southwest Museum and Casa de Adobe, located in Mount Washington, will be preserved and conserved, and that both sites will continue to be public destinations.” They also vowed that they “will endeavor to create rotating exhibits and displays at the Mt. Washington site” showcasing the Southwest collection.

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The Autry’s Gray said preservation architect Brenda Levin will soon resume work -- suspended amid February’s delays -- to assess costs and options involved in a restoration of the Southwest complex.

As a further preservation step, Gray said, the museum would support the nomination of the building for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. (The Southwest Museum and neighboring Casa de Adobe are already on the city of Los Angeles register of historic-cultural monuments.)

Still, it’s impossible to decide the fate of the Southwest property, Gray said, until Levin’s assessment shows the costs involved and new fund-raising efforts are undertaken.


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