Amid an epic dispute over the future of L.A.'s Southwest Museum, a new report sees hope
A new report that distills competing viewpoints about one of Los Angeles’ most stubborn cultural issues -- what to do about the nearly dormant Southwest Museum site in Mount Washington -- could be a useful first step in breaking a decade-long deadlock, the people who compiled the report say.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation, which has declared the 101-year-old, castle-like museum building a “national treasure,” will officially present the report at a public meeting Monday evening.
In January, the National Trust, America’s leading private organization for saving and reviving historic sites, committed to the role of referee, conciliator and key planning consultant in an effort to chart a better future for the Southwest.
The building is open only on Saturdays, with a single exhibit from the prized collection of Native American art and artifacts that once filled it.
Its owner, the Autry Museum of the American West in Griffith Park, absorbed the financially teetering Southwest Museum of the American Indian in 2003. A sometimes caustic debate over the Autry’s stewardship broke out a few years later and remained unresolved when the National Trust stepped in.
Opposition from neighborhood supporters of the Southwest Museum’s revival who felt the Autry had hijacked the collection and abandoned the building was crucial in the city council’s refusal to allow the expansion.
The council required a promise that the Autry also fully revive the Southwest Museum site, and the Autry refused, saying it was unaffordable.
Instead the Autry is renovating the lower level of its current building, carving out galleries for permanent Native American exhibits that are expected to open next fall.
When the Mariinsky Ballet performed “Cinderella” at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Oct. 8, even the wondrous Diana Vishneva as Cinderella couldn’t bring unity to the movement, but she danced with flawless, fearless authority. Read more >>(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins leaves a rehearsal of his play “Appropriate,” opening Oct. 4 at the Mark Taper Forum, to eat first with a reporter, then later with his agent and some unspecified Hollywood people, who presumably hope to lure him away from the field and city where he has experienced meteoric success in the last five years. Read more >>(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Soprano Abigail Fischer performs Oct. 7 in the opera “Songs from the Uproar” at REDCAT in Los Angeles.(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Moisés Kaufman’s muscular revival of “Bent,” which played at the Mark Taper Forum, opening on July 26, renders what many had written off as a parochial drama about the persecution of homosexuals in Nazi Germany into a gripping tale of love, courage and identity. Read review >>(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Malaviki Sarukkai performing at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica on July 19, 2015. Sarukkai is the best-known exponent of South Indian classical dance.(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Bramwell Tovey conducts the L.A. Phil with pianist Garrick Ohlsson in Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 at the Hollywood Bowl on July 14, 2015.(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Argentine dancer Herman Cornejo performs in the West Coast premiere of “Tango y Yo” as part of the Latin portion of BalletNow.(Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times)
Jake Shears plays Greta in Martin Sherman’s play “Bent” at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles through Aug. 23, 2015.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Dancers rehearse a one-night-only performance choregraphed by Raiford Rogers, one of L.A.'s most-noted choreographers. This year the dance will be to a new original score by Czech composer Zbynek Mateju.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Mia Sinclair Jenness, left, Mabel Tyler and Gabby Gutierrez alternate playing the title role in the musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s “Matilda” at the Ahmanson Theatre. The three are shown during a day at Santa Monica Pier on June 16, 2015.(Christina House / For The Times)
American Contemporary Ballet Company members Zsolt Banki and Cleo Magill perform a dance routine originally done by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. This performance was presented as part of “Music + Dance: L.A.” on Friday, June 19, 2015.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Miguel, a Grammy-winning guitarist, producer, singer and lyricist, is photographed in San Pedro on Wednesday, June 10, 2015. His new album “Wildheart,” explores L.A.'s “weird mix of hope and desperation.”(Christina House / For The Times)
Los Angeles-born artist Mark Bradford is photographed in front of “The Next Hot Line.” This piece is part of his show “Scorched Earth,” installed at the Hammer Museum in Westwood, June 11, 2015.(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
The Los Angeles Opera concluded its season with “The Marriage of Figaro,” with Roberto Tagliavini as Figaro and Pretty Yende as Susanna, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
“Trinket,” a monumental installation by Newark-born, Chicago-based artist William Pope.L, features an American flag that is 16 feet tall and 45 feet long. The work is on display at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA through June 28.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Alex Knox, from left, Carolyn Ratteray, Lynn Milgrim and Paige Lindsey White in “Pygmalion” in spring 2015 at the Pasadena Playhouse.(Mariah Tauger / For The Times)
On March 17, Google celebrated the addition of more than 5,000 images to its Google Street Art project with a launch party at the Container Yard in downtown Los Angeles.(Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times)
Ric Salinas, left, Herbert Siguenza and Richard Montoya, of the three-man Latino theater group Culture Clash, brought their “Chavez Ravine: An L.A. Revival” to the Kirk Douglas Theatre to mark the group’s 30th anniversary. The play ran from Feb. 4 through March 1.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
The core issue in the long-running dispute is whether it’s realistic to think that the Southwest can ever be something akin to what it once was – a major showcase for L.A.’s oldest museum collection, which key founder Charles Lummis had begun amassing even before the Southwest Museum was chartered in 1907.
Its privately funded building opened in 1914, a year after L.A.'s oldest museum building, which is now the rotunda of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County in Exposition Park.
The report by the National Trust acknowledges there’s still a gulf between the two sides. Residents of the neighborhoods nearest the Southwest Museum insist that a viable museum is possible. The Autry and some outside cultural leaders contend that the costs of bringing the building up to 21st century museum standards and then financing its operations would be prohibitive.
The report is based on interviews -- most of them one-on-one -- between National Trust staff members and 87 “stakeholders.” Almost two-thirds of the interviewees live or work in three northeast Los Angeles neighborhoods near the museum -- Mount Washington, Highland Park and Eagle Rock.
Others are cultural professionals, including the directors of USC’s Fisher Museum of Art and UCLA’s Fowler Museum; Laura Zucker, executive director of the Los Angeles County Arts Commission; and leading local experts on renovating and preserving historic buildings.
This community has a dream to reopen this great museum. I want to keep the dream open.
— Carol Teutsch, a Mt. Washington resident
“Despite disagreements over the museum function and the collection, the interviews revealed a growing willingness to work collaboratively toward a shared vision,” the report said, noting that possibilities to be explored include partitioning the site to accommodate other uses alongside a smaller museum. The Southwest “inspired deep feelings and strong passions, and many are adamant that this site is simply too important to remain largely empty and underutilized.”
National Trust staff members Chris Morris and Amy Webb are leading its efforts to revive the Southwest building and its steep 12-acre grounds. They said in an interview that they hope a firm plan for the Southwest will be in place by the end of 2016, identifying how it should be used, and laying out a business plan for its operations. Donors and government funding will likely to be crucial to any new vision’s success.
Ultimately it will be up to the Autry, which owns the Southwest Museum, to decide whether to accept recommendations that come out of the planning process.
The report on stakeholders’ viewpoints didn’t try to gloss over some serious disagreements that will have to be bridged.
“Interviewees held starkly different perspectives about the amount of money that realistically could be raised” to fix and operate the Southwest as a fully functioning museum, the report says.
“In general, longtime local residents from the surrounding neighborhoods were much more optimistic about the sustainability of a museum focused on the [Native American] collection. These interviewees believed that as long as there is a consensus and a will to move forward, there is ample public and private funding…in Los Angeles to support an ambitious vision” for restoring the Southwest to its original function as a museum of Native American culture.
But, the report goes on to note, “other interviewees -- particularly… museum professionals, political and government leaders and philanthropists -- were more skeptical about the longterm financial viability” of going all-in on a revived museum.
That part of the report troubled Carol Teutsch, a Mount Washington resident who wants to see a vibrant museum – and who will serve on a newly formed 15-member “steering committee” that will make key recommendations that could shape the outcome.
“We think maybe there’s a little bias creeping in by presenting it that way,” Teutsch said in an interview. “If you imply that the community is not realistic and the experts are the only ones with reality, it concerns me. I want doors to be open. This community has a dream to reopen this great museum. I want to keep the dream open.”
She said that the starting point for the discussion should be whether it’s possible to revive the Southwest Museum as primarily a showcase for its historic Native American collection, which is big enough to stock several museums, and related exhibitions. Teutsch said she’s open to the idea that retail and restaurant operations might have to be carved into the building to supply some of the money the museum operation will need.
The Autry Museum’s president, W. Richard West Jr., said he was encouraged by signs in the report that there’s a willingness to engage in constructive discussions about the Southwest Museum’s future.
“It has been very difficult in the past to create even the psychology and the sense that there was a long-range, sustainable solution here,” West said. “Now all parties are more hopeful. The will has been demonstrated, and there will almost inevitably be an outcome that’s sustainable.”
The Autry has two representatives on the steering committee, including its board chairman, Marshall McKay. The neighborhoods near the Southwest also have two members, Teutsch and Frank Parrello, president of the Eagle Rock Valley Historical Society.
Others include historic preservation experts and advocates, staffers for Los Angeles City Council member Gil Cedillo and Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis, faculty members from Occidental College and USC, including Fisher Museum director Selma Holo, and Tracy Stanhoff, president of the American Indian Chamber of Commerce of California.
The report lays out coming steps. One is the release, probably early next year, of results of a broader online survey in which 1,600 respondents gave their views on the Southwest Museum. Another is hiring a consultant – also probably early next year -- to do a “market and use” analysis of what kinds of attractions, programs or businesses might be able to succeed at the site.
Architectural consultants and consultants on forming a business plan are also expected to be engaged. The National Trust staffers said that everything will be made public, including the consultants’ reports.
“Our goal is to be open and transparent and open up the conversation and include as many voices as we could,” said Morris, who heads the National Trust’s Los Angeles office. Conversations also have begun about who potential donors might be for a revived Southwest Museum.
“Money is a key question,” said Webb, who has special expertise in “heritage tourism” – attracting people to historic sites, including 31 that the National Trust itself operates around the country.
“Nobody at this point is stepping up with a lot of money on the table,” Webb said. She added that it’s not realistic to expect donors to emerge until there’s a consensus in the community about what to do and a blueprint for doing it. The report says that some of the people interviewed think the history of discord around the site could hurt its funding prospects.
Los Angeles museum history has multiple precedents in which a single key donor made big things happen -- with the Autry’s opening in 1988 as one of the examples.
But Morris said it’s prudent not to count on a single billionaire adopting the Southwest Museum and emerging as the angel of its resurrection.
“The deep-pocketed individual who funds all the cost is more the exception than the rule,” she said. More likely, she said, a sustainable Southwest – whatever it is going to offer -- will need a combination of private donors, government funding, and earnings from business operations such as a gift shop, restaurant and venue rentals.
The report will be presented Monday at 7 p.m. at Ramona Hall, 4580 N. Figueroa St., Los Angeles.
Follow @boehmm of the L.A. Times for arts news and features
From the Oscars to the Emmys.
Get the Envelope newsletter for exclusive awards season coverage, behind-the-scenes stories from the Envelope podcast and columnist Glenn Whipp’s must-read analysis.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.