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Is the Autry's Management of Southwest Museum Screwing L.A. Taxpayers?

A community coalition protested at The Southwest Museum Tuesday, drawing attention to a years-old preservation effort that spent millions of taxpayer dollars, but appears to have produced little gain.

See also: L.A.'s First Museum to Close, Boosters Say

Friends of the Southwest Museum Coalition expressed outrage over roughly $10.5 million spent by FEMA and the state of California, culminating last month in the museum's reopening. Yet excited patrons found inside just one exhibit in one gallery -- open one day per week. This, in a facility that owns a trove of 240,000 Native American artifacts.

Mural on Marmion Way just below the Southwest Museum.
Mural on Marmion Way just below the Southwest Museum.

Autry museum officials took control of the Southwest Museum about a decade ago. Since then, critics allege, the Southwest has become its neglected stepchild.

Autry officials shuttered the Southwest in 2006 to repair structural problems caused by the 1994 Northridge earthquake, and promised to use that time to undertake a major preservation of the cash-poor museum's widely prized, but poorly maintained, Native American collection.

See also: Autry Drops Expansion Plans

Yesterday, about 45 people chanted "Unlock these doors," as they stood near the pedestrian tunnel leading to the Southwest Museum's entrance in Mount Washington.

John Schwada, spokesman for the Friends of the Southwest Museum Coalition, comprised of groups including the California Preservation Association and the UCLA American Indian Studies Center, accused Autry officials of failing to begin earthquake repairs until 2009, three years after they closed the museum -- and of shuttling the artifacts to a warehouse in Burbank.

"The Autry is trying to strangle the Southwest Museum at its own expense so that it can show the collection at its own museum in Griffith Park," Schwada said.

The catalyst for protest came on Oct. 19 when the Autry reopened the Southwest Museum -- for only six hours weekly, on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

At the Tuesday press conference, coalition spokeswoman Nicole Possert said:

"This re-opening is a farce. The public spent $10.5 million supposedly to save the Southwest Museum and its collection, and this is what they get: A museum that's locked six days a week? This is unacceptable. The Autry is stiffing taxpayers. The Autry is failing miserably to share the Southwest Museum's wonderful collection with the taxpaying public."

Moreover, according to Schwada, the exhibit on display has already been featured twice before at the museum.

Documents provided by the coalition show that parts of the "Four Centuries of Pueblo Pottery" exhibit have been shown twice before -- once in 2003 and once in 2005 -- under the name "People of the Southwest: Changing Traditions."

"This halfhearted, meager, inaccessible exhibit demonstrates the Autry's bad faith and its broken promise to restore the Southwest Museum to its 'original glory,'" said Possert.

Bright side? Admission is free.

The Southwest Museum's collection is comprised of artifacts from Native American, Mesoamerican and Spanish Colonial cultures. The vast collection has been the subject of years of struggle over who would control it, who would pay for its protection and who would highlight its cultural integrity and history.

Rick West, president of Autry National Center of the American West located near the L.A. Zoo, says allegations of the misuse of taxpayer money are unfounded:

"Under FEMA's explicit provision it calls for the conservation and protection of these artifacts. Over almost the past nine years we have been in the active process of preserving and moving these items to the Autry Resource Center in Burbank... The case of misused or inappropriately used funding is not the case."

The CEO, who notes that he is a proud Cheyenne, added that many of the ceramics shown in the museum's latest exhibit have never been displayed before.

Autry officials have been working with Los Angeles city leaders and Mount Washington community members on the project, and gave some of them a back-of-the-house tour.

While acknowledging that work on the museum is far from complete -- some building leaking has been repaired -- West says the 1907-era structure requires "monumental" updating.

He says that about 85 percent of the artifact collection has been moved to a Burbank warehouse and the other 15 percent will be moved to the warehouse by 2014.

After that, West says, the Southwest Museum building would require a modern update. It sounds like the Southwest Museum saga will continue indefinitely.


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