Revive the Southwest Museum
The Southwest Museum, which sits on a hilltop in Mount Washington, is the oldest museum in Los Angeles, a historic landmark, a testament to longevity in a town without much of that.
For decades, it housed and displayed objects from a world-class collection of Native American and Latin American artifacts. But age — the museum will be 100 years old next year — along with the Northridge earthquake and financial troubles took their toll. In 2003, the museum officially merged with the larger Autry Museum of Western Heritage, which is located in Griffith Park and was founded in 1988 by its namesake, the Hollywood cowboy Gene Autry, the Western actor Monte Hale and their wives.
But despite merger documents promising that the Southwest and the Autry would seek to remain separate — both physically and organizationally — the larger one has essentially swallowed the smaller one and provoked nearly a decade of bitter feuding between the Autry and a group called Friends of the Southwest Museum Coalition, which is dedicated to making the Southwest a fully functioning museum again.
There’s no question that much good has come out of the merger. The Southwest was desperate for help in 2003, and its board found a benefactor in the Autry. With the help of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and state funds, the Autry repaired extensive earthquake damage to the building. The Autry also spent several million dollars of its own managing the Southwest and conserving its collection of 200,000-300,000 artifacts, most of which are now stored safely in a new state-of-the-art facility in Burbank.
But the Southwest has been mostly shuttered for seven years, much of that time for repairs. Only last month did it reopen one gallery for a modestly scaled exhibit — solely on Saturdays, for just six hours.
Meanwhile, the Autry got lots out of the deal. For years it had offered little more than a charming collection of cowboy and Old West memorabilia, but it has grown in stature as a museum, in part because of its acquisition of the Southwest’s collection.
Today, the Autry would like to turn the Southwest building into a high-end multipurpose cultural center — perhaps with symposia or live programming — says W. Richard West Jr., the chief executive of the Autry. The building might still exhibit a tiny bit of the collection, but it would never again be the main repository of it. Trying to reopen the 99-year-old building as a museum is an exercise in nostalgia, West says. Friends of the Southwest says that what the Autry is doing is a betrayal of trust — and of the merger agreement.
Certainly the Autry has done a good job conserving the collection. And the priority going forward should be to preserve the artifacts and to make sure they are seen by the widest possible audience.
But the Autry also has a responsibility to make more of a good-faith effort than it has so far to restore the Southwest as a museum. The merger agreement calls for the collection to be located there. True, the document includes contingencies letting the Autry off the hook if a “master plan” — to be drawn up after the merger — shows that restoring the building as a museum is not feasible. And sure enough, the Autry now has such a master plan. But the merger document also says that regardless of the master plan, the “hope” is to “restore the site to its original glory.”
West says it would be exorbitantly expensive to transform the Southwest into a 21st century museum. What’s more, even if it were transformed, it still would not be viable, he says. Attendance dwindled from 31,000 in 2005 to 24,600 in 2006, the last year it was fully open.
No doubt it would be a significant challenge to run the Southwest six days a week like the Autry runs, well, the Autry. But the fact is that the Autry did promise to try to revive the old museum, not merely move the collection elsewhere.
The Autry should continue to look for a way to run the Southwest — and promote it — as the unique museum it is. That doesn’t mean it has to be open all week long. And the Autry should look for private or public partners to help share the operation of the Southwest. But it should not turn the Southwest into a garden-variety cultural center until there has first been a serious attempt to rehabilitate it as a museum.
A cure for the common opinion
Get thought-provoking perspectives with our weekly newsletter.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.