The long-running controversy over the Autry National Center of the American West's stewardship of the Southwest Museum may be coming to a head, with a $6.6-million price tag now attached to the question that city officials have pondered for years: Is the Autry legally obligated to run the Southwest as well as its main site in Griffith Park?
The main development in a wide-ranging but inconclusive hearing Friday before the City Council's Arts, Parks, Health and Aging Committee was Autry leaders' contention that if the question isn't settled in their favor by July 12, the Autry may forfeit a $6.6-million state grant that it needs to renovate two galleries in Griffith Park.
The project would create that venue's first permanent exhibits from the Southwest's prized collection of Native American art and artifacts — a collection the Autry acquired in 2002 when it took over the financially depleted Southwest. Operated independently since 1914, the Southwest's historic Mount Washington building needs costly renovations of its own to bring it up to modern museum standards.
The Southwest Museum has been closed to the public since 2009, although conservation work continues on its 250,000-piece collection.
The Autry has plans eventually to relocate the collection, only a small portion of which can be displayed, to a Burbank storage space it bought last year. The Autry would like to divest itself of the responsibility — and the cost — of revitalizing and running the Southwest; it wants to donate the building to another nonprofit, or operate it in tandem with a new nonprofit partner — but not necessarily as a museum of Native American culture.
Supporters of the Southwest, allied as the Friends of the Southwest Museum Coalition, want to hold City Hall's feet to the fire and compel it to deliver a message that the Autry is not free to pursue an independent agenda in Griffith Park without satisfying community needs in Mount Washington.
The coalition contends that the 2002 Autry-Southwest merger agreement and the city's General Plan for future development both mandate that the Southwest Museum continue to operate as a showcase for Native American culture.
Additionally, coalition speakers said, the $1 a year lease the Autry holds from the city to operate in Griffith Park requires that changes — such as the proposed $8-million renovation — be allowed only after an in-depth environmental impact review.
On May 20, the Autry's landlord, the Board of Commissioners of the Los Angeles City Department of Recreation and Parks, OK'd the renovation plan and waived the need for a more extensive environmental review.
Two coalition members, the Mount Washington Homeowners Alliance and Charles Fisher, have appealed the environmental waiver under a state law that calls for elected officials to consider disputed environmental decisions by appointed bodies such as the recreation and parks board.
Autry President Daniel Finley told the council committee on Friday that the only thing it should consider at this point is the renovation plan itself, which he has portrayed as the routine sort of exhibit redesign that all museums undertake periodically to keep their offerings relevant, attractive and fresh.
"The issue of the future of the Southwest Museum doesn't strike me as germane," he said.
But the Southwest coalition says it's myopic and disingenuous for officials not to see the limited renovations as an irreversible first step in a strategic revamping of the Autry that would spell the demise of the Southwest Museum. Last year, in announcing its purchase of the Burbank storage facility, the Autry said it would free up additional Griffith Park space for Native American exhibits — beyond what the present renovation plan calls for.
Patti Keating, grants chief for the California State Parks Department, said Friday that the Autry has a July 12 deadline to show that its landlord — the city — consents to the renovations, although it might be possible for the Autry to get a short extension.
If the Autry doesn't get the city's OK, Keating said, state parks officials would go back to their voluminous list of unsuccessful applicants and decide how to reallocate the $6.6 million.
Not wanting the Autry to lose its grant, Councilman Tom LaBonge said he favors allowing the renovations while continuing to address the broader issue of the Southwest Museum's future. Fellow committee member Ed Reyes disagreed, saying it's time to get assurances from the Autry that it will reopen and sustain the Southwest Museum.