The Autry Museum of the American West, the longtime caretaker of the Southwest Museum, is expected to announce on Tuesday its intention to transfer the historic but problematic 1914 building and grounds to a new owner who can use the site for “community benefit.”
The Autry will put out a call for proposals for the “revitalization and creative reuse” of L.A.’s oldest museum, a 12-acre campus near the Mount Washington-Highland Park border, plus the museum’s nearby adobe building, a 1917 replica of a Spanish California ranch house from the 19th century.
The Autry has spent a decade and a half — and at least $20 million — conserving and otherwise caring for the Southwest Museum’s massive collection of American Indian artifacts, now officially part of the Autry’s collection. Faced with renovations estimated to run into the tens of millions of dollars in order for the Southwest to reopen fully as a museum, the Autry is looking for someone else to manage and own the property while respecting its history. That someone else could be a museum, university, nonprofit or other cultural institution — or, the Autry said, commercial entities including a restaurant, retail or housing that partner with such cultural organizations.
The Autry said in a best-case scenario, the new owner would partner with the Autry on educational programming, exhibitions and events related to the Southwest Museum’s collection.
“It’s one of the two or three most significant Native American collections in the world, certainly in the U.S.,” Autry Museum President W. Richard West Jr. said. “It’s a legacy of the Autry, and it is profoundly a legacy of Los Angeles, both the larger community and the specific community in which it sits in Mount Washington and Highland Park. I want to make sure we find a sustainable future for the facility that is reflective of its legacy and maintains community connectedness.”
The Autry is working with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which in 2015 named the Southwest Museum a national treasure. The trust created a 15-person steering committee that includes West; William F. Deverell, director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West; L.A. Conservancy President Linda Dishman; and Arturo Chavez, a representative from Councilman Gil Cedillo’s office.
Cedillo said in a statement that he’s “committed to helping find the right fit and the right future opportunity to ensure these sites continue to provide value to this community and greater Los Angeles. We are excited to play an active role in this project — one that we anticipate will bring major cultural, community, and economic benefits.”
The Southwest Museum’s future has been a divisive conversation for years. Residents nearby and groups such as Friends of the Southwest Museum Coalition have pushed for the space to reopen as a museum, but the Autry has said the cost of updating the building to 21st century museum standards, not to mention operational expenses, would be prohibitive.
More than 100 years old, both the museum and adobe are challenging, the Autry said. The museum campus has many levels of stairs, so wheelchair access is a problem. Seismic and other structural upgrades are needed. Parking is limited, although the campus sits next to the Metro Gold Line. The Autry estimates that reactivating the space as a museum would cost “tens of millions of dollars,” and reactivating the adobe as an educational or cultural space would be an additional $5 million to $7 million.
The “Request for Interest” going out Tuesday is a 21-page document offering background on the sites as well as a range of possible uses. It suggests that turning the Southwest Museum into a “multi-use space” might be particularly viable. That could mean a combination of live-work spaces for artists and scholars, art studios and performance spaces, along with revenue-generating businesses such as a cafe, small-scale retail or event spaces.
“We want to cast as wide a net as we can,” West said. “We’re comfortable that it could be a combination of nonprofits and for-profits that might combine the uses they’re dedicated to in order to make it work.”
West added that the ideal candidate or group of candidates would combine “experience as owner-operators, an ethic of community connectiveness in what they’ve done and ultimately, a financial future that is also sustainable.” He said the generation of revenue is important. The Southwest Museum was in debt since the mid-1920s, he said. “That’s always been one of its greatest challenges, and we want to get it past that.”
No potential candidates are being ruled out at this early stage, West said — a fact that will offer little solace to those concerned that the site formerly used for cultural and educational purposes could be turned into, say, an upscale restaurant or hipster bar. It’s likely, West said, that the final scenario “will probably be an approach that has multiple uses, diversity, a mix. ... The aspiration is that there’ll be something there of value to the community.”
In 2003, the Autry — then called the Autry Western Heritage Museum — assumed ownership and oversight of the Southwest Museum when the organizations merged. The Southwest had more than 400,000 objects, including Native American baskets, beaded jewelry, quilts, ceramics and works on paper, among other materials relating to the American Southwest, plus books, photographs, posters, maps and other ephemera from the museum’s Braun Research Library.
Much of the collection, the Autry said, had been stored improperly prior to the merger. Storage areas were overcrowded, with poor climate control, and the museum had problems with pests, dust and water leaks.
The Autry turned most of the main floor gallery space into a conservation lab while it conserved, cataloged and rehoused the collection, an effort that’s ongoing. Objects have been moved into a new collections care facility, the Resources Center of the Autry, a 100,000-square-foot renovated warehouse in Burbank that will serve as a conservation site for the combined collections. It will open by appointment next year to scholars, filmmakers, students, Native Americans and others conducting research.