More debate ahead on the Autry’s renovation plans

Should city approval of the Autry National Center’s plans to install Native American galleries in its main museum in Griffith Park depend on the Autry addressing the future of its subsidiary venue, the venerable but problematic Southwest Museum in Mount Washington?

That’s a question that could be debated for a second consecutive summer following the Los Angeles City Council’s vote Tuesday to take jurisdiction over the Autry’s $8-million plan to convert two Griffith Park galleries into permanent exhibits on traditional Native American art and culture.

Meanwhile, the Autry’s president, Daniel Finley, said Tuesday that its aims for the Southwest Museum’s future now include donating the Mount Washington site to another nonprofit organization. Previously, the Autry’s public position had been that it was seeking a nonprofit partner – possibly a university or other educational institution — to use the building as a tenant while the Autry retained ownership. Finley said the Autry continues to have discussions with potential partners, as well as with potential new owners.


In either case, the Autry’s goal is to eventually store the Southwest’s large, prized collection of Native American artworks and artifacts at a new facility it bought in Burbank, aiming to renovate that site as a research center and library — and thus free up more space in the existing Griffith Park building for new galleries without having to enlarge it.

The renovation plan now up for discussion is the first step in creating permanent exhibits in Griffith Park for works acquired in a 2002 merger-takeover of the Southwest Museum, which had lacked the financial wherewithal to continue independently.

On May 20, the Autry had received the OK to renovate from its Griffith Park landlord, the Board of Recreation and Parks Commissioners — and that typically would have been enough, Finley said. But the City Council has the authority to review and have final say over the decisions of L.A.'s various boards and commissions, and it invoked that power Tuesday at the behest of Councilman Jose Huizar, whose district includes the Southwest Museum. Huizar had spearheaded last year’s effort to wrest from the Autry a guarantee that it would resume and sustain operations at the now-closed Southwest site in Mount Washington.

Huizar’s spokesman, Rick Coca, said the councilman’s motion to invoke a “Section 245" review of the commissioners’ OK of the Autry renovations stemmed from constituents’ complaints that they hadn’t received enough notice that the commissioners were going to consider the Autry’s proposal.

The review — which will begin Friday in a hearing before the council’s Arts, Parks, Health and Aging Committee — ensures “that the people have the opportunity to make their voices known,” Huizar said in a written statement. “Regardless where you stand on this issue, the people have the right to be heard.”

Finley, a longtime Wisconsin county executive before taking the reins at the Autry last September, said he sees the issue now as much more narrow than it was last year, when the Autry needed the council’s approval of a wide-ranging environmental impact review for what was then a $175-million expansion plan.

What’s on the agenda now, he said, is “a routine upgrade of two galleries; for museums, it’s what we do,” and it deserves to be decided on narrow technical grounds. “We’re going to show [council members] a floor plan. We’re not going in there to talk about the long-term future of the Southwest building.”

Finley said the Autry’s lease with the city says that renovation approvals “will not be unreasonably withheld — I guess unreasonableness is in the eye of the beholder.”

Nicole Possert, who chairs the Friends of the Southwest Museum Coalition, said that a broader discussion is in order. “The city and the Autry know darn well this is a much larger project, and this is just Phase 1.”

The aim is to renovate the galleries by 2014. Meanwhile, the Autry is trying to raise an estimated $25 million to transform its Burbank property, which would allow it to then refocus on reconfiguring existing offices and storage vaults as gallery space in Griffith Park.