LAST SEPTEMBER, AT THE SOUTHWEST Museum on top of Mount Washington in Arroyo Seco, Tom Topping went to a press conference convened by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Councilman Jose Huizar, where the similarities to a highly controlled Washington, D.C., photo op struck him as odd.
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First was the list of approved invitees. Second were the signs warning the uninvited the event was “private.” Two dutiful security guards checked a guest list both at the bottom of Mount Washington and at the top.
If the tightly managed choreography bothered Topping, the owner of the monthly Boulevard Sentinel, so did the reversal over who should control a treasure trove of Indian artifacts, announced by Villaraigosa and Huizar. They said they now stood “shoulder to shoulder” with the museum’s new owner, the sprawling Autry National Center — a well-funded museum located in Griffith Park.*
Until then, the mayor and Huizar had painted the Autry as a cultural pirate. Having bought the Southwest Museum, nestled in an urban neighborhood surrounded by poverty and gangs, the big-money Autry was now trying to remove Southwest’s Native American treasures to its own touristy locale next to the L.A. Zoo.
After a “very, very tough negotiation,” Villaraigosa announced, a small part of the Southwest would remain open, and a “blue ribbon committee,” the Southwest Society, would make sure the locals didn’t lose everything. Dissenters — the vast majority of local community leaders — weren’t present, Topping says.
Now Recreation and Parks’ politically appointed commissioners — people like Candy Spelling, Tori’s mom — will soon decide if the Autry, which is on city land, can expand its 110,000 square feet by another 79,000. It’s all part of a $185 million campaign to relocate the Southwest Museum under the same roof as the Museum of the American West, where it will occupy a separate wing.
Press coverage has essentially portrayed the plan as having universal support, representing it, above all, to be uncontroversial. It is not. “The media have seen this as an issue that’s resolved,” says Nicole Possert, a founder of Friends of the Southwest Museum.
Near Figueroa Street in northeast L.A., the old Southwest Museum is 8 miles from Autry’s Museum of the American West. That’s the way Friends of the Southwest Museum — an indisputably extensive coalition of about 78 community organizations, including six neighborhood councils and dozens of historical groups — wants it to stay.
But these residents believe City Hall — in the form of the five commissioners Villaraigosa appointed to the parks board — will approve Autry’s plan to unite the two museums under one roof in pursuit of a merger that was originally supposed to save the Southwest Museum.
“If it’s all in one building called the ‘Autry National Center,’ how is that preserving it? It’ll be reduced to a plaque on the wall,” says Dan Wright, past president of the Mount Washington Homeowners Alliance,
In 2003, the Autry acquired Southwest Museum after its decades-long decline. Declining revenues, shrinking programs — even leaks in its picturesque seven-story Torrance Tower, as well as silverfish and mildew in its artifacts — plagued it. In 1993, its former director was convicted of secretly selling 20 Native American baskets, tapestries and paintings.
BUT IT'S THE STARK INTELLECTUAL contrasts between the two museums that have made for an unhappy marriage. The tourist-trap Autry is named after Singing Cowboy Gene Autry, famous for lowbrow hits like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” The Southwest Museum amassed a 250,000-piece collection of Native American artifacts that is among the finest in the nation.
The Autry displays Gary Cooper’s toupee and silver-slathered riding saddles. The Southwest is destitute but cultured. Says Wright, “The Autry is the black hat, and the Southwest is tied to the tracks.”
Autry CEO John Gray calls the acquisition a “merger of equals.” But the Southwest is clearly playing a secondary role, with its director, Duane King, now answering to Gray and the Autry-controlled board.
“You give me a commitment that you’ll raise the money, then you can spend it,” Gray says of Southwest backers. “Every time I have a philosophical discussion, I get accused of lying.”
There’s a reason residents vilify Gray. In March 2003, he publicly promised that the final location of the Southwest Museum would rest heavily upon the views of a group of experts.
In 2004, the experts said that if Autry made “considerable” investments in rebuilding the Southwest, the museum could succeed on Mount Washington. But Gray tossed out that idea, explaining, “[The Autry board] didn’t feel that we could do it.”
Meanwhile, the Autry’s plan to raise $185 million to expand next to the zoo — contrasted with its wan effort to rebuild the Southwest — has residents fuming. They’ve already raised $116 million. Says Dan Wright, “They never had any intention of keeping the museum on Mount Washington.”
Eliot Sekuler was one of the few Mount Washington residents actually invited to last September’s mayoral press conference — after he switched sides. Vice chair of Arroyo Seco’s neighborhood council and president of the Mount Washington Association, Sekuler says he realized the locals could never get what they wanted. The Autry “doesn’t ‘get’ the Eastside of L.A. at all,” he says. “It would have closed [the Southwest] if not for the loud protests, but we got some concessions.”
A final decision is expected soon, and locals have raised $20,000 — to meet in court. Many now fear that the venerable museum, under Villaraigosa, is a vote away from becoming high-priced condos.
Contact Max Taves at email@example.com.
*Editor's note: An earlier version of this article said the Autry museum was located near Griffith Park. It is located in Griffith Park.