Saving the Southwest Museum

swmThe Times’ veteran Bob Poll had the story a day late. I was surprised, having watched the regular City Hall reporters walk away from the Tuesday event. Maybe they were knocking off early to prepare for the big Inaugural the following day. OK, it was their call.

It goes without saying that the meeting was quite important. What was at issue was a fairly technical matter of granting the Gene Autry Museum the right to double the size of and rebuild its Griffith Park exhibit hall. In fact, the outcome appeared to resolve a long- unresolvable city cultural affairs conflict dating back some 25 years. Which had to do with saving that wonderful 95-year-old Mount Washington resource known as the Southwest Museum. Founded by LA’s great eccentric historian-pioneer Charles Lummis, by the early 1980s, the institution was hanging on for dear life. A trusted and beloved executive had been caught selling off artifacts. The collection, most of it stuffed into the landmark tower that juts over Arroyo Parkway, was succumbing to water and vermin damage. The attendance was down, the antique elevator wasn’t working a lot of the time. If you weren’t a school kid on a compulsory class trip, there was almost no chance you’d ever visit it.

And yet this museum, on its 12-acre landmark site, contains the greatest assortment of Native American art and artifacts in all of North America, maybe the world. Of course, that too was part of the problem… Nowadays, Native American culture and arts receive a broad appreciation. But just a generation ago, they were mostly of interest to native peoples and collectors. Then, the SW Museum received a suitor–the freshly minted Gene Autry Museum of the American West. Which had the fiscal resources of a major defense contractor along with, the Culture Vultures claimed, the aesthetic sensibilities of a daily cartoon.

From the beginning, the museum’s resident neighbors smelled a rat. Gene Autry was a movie cowboy. Cowboys and Indians, right? Would we now be turning the native treasures over to the Native Americans’ natural enemy? And what would happen to the landmark if the Autry moved the collections to its Griffith Park facility? What kind of durable cultural entity could replace the museum in its unique fortress? An accordion studio? Or would the lovely old tower become an abandoned, graffiti infested public horror?

All good points. But the fact was that the SWM was on the verge of failing. If it did so, the entire collection would be sold off, lost. In 2003, a deal was made. Autry promised to move part of the collections to its proposed newly expanded museum in the Park. It also proposed to somehow keep the landmark viable. For six years since, the neighbors, now mustered out in their new neighborhood councils, remained hotly opposed. In the meantime, the Autry fulfilled some local fears by closing the museum, except for its gift shop, for renovations.

But the renovations (you may recall seeing the tower swathed in its protective covering for a few months) took place. The collections were preserved and restored. And the Autry folks did an end run around local opponents by getting the state’s Native America community very solidly behind their efforts. You suspected that, under the Autry’s overslick “issues management” of the crisis, it might just be doing the right thing.

One never knows. But I do know, having covered this issue since 1984, that the SWM was never close to big enough to display all its collections. There are enough pieces in storage (90 percent of the entire collection) to fill two museums, at least. And that is now what is going to happen. The original museum has some accessibility advantages. ( One of which is its Gold Line light rail station. Even New York’s museums haven’ t got their own subway stops). And it’s a major part of the city landscape.

But assuring that the Autry will do what it’s said it will do is the tricky part. And this is where the LA City Council came in. Local, state and national government have been getting such a bad rap lately — particularly in Sacramento — that it’s almost embarrassing to have to note that sometimes–like last Tuesday– it can do the right thing..

Jose Huizar of the 14th District proposed an amendment that made the granting of the museum expansion contingent on an enforceable vow to keep the old museum up and running. It sounded like a perfect answer to the problem, even if I do wonder just how such an amendment would be enforced–would it require the Autry to tear down its extension if it closed the old museum? But until I see what the lawyers come back with, I’ll give the city the benefit of the doubt. While the Legislature and the Governor continued to battle mindlessly on our budget, with little fanfare, our own stumbling leaders may have actually solved a decades-old problem for the city.

2 thoughts on “Saving the Southwest Museum”

  1. “great eccentric historian-pioneer Charles Lummis”

    And white supremacist. Don’t forget white supremacist. Just as most of Los Angeles’ cultural elite were in the late 19th/early 20th centuries.

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