Photo by Ted Soqui

It was one of those seemingly endless Los Angeles school-board meetings,
even more contentious than usual because the elected officials were bickering
over whether to put a huge construction bond on the November 8 ballot. A representative
of the PTA came to the microphone to say the bond should move forward. And then
the parent did something most unexpected. He pulled out a petition with a drawing
of a pirate on it — and pleaded with the board to save, of all things, the Southwest
Museum. “We really need your help on this,” he told the board members, some of
whom nodded gravely.

Meanwhile, along Marmion Way, one of the main freeway bypasses between the woodsy Mount Washington homes of elected officials and their downtown offices, a poster appeared with a drawing of a pirate and a warning that the historic Southwest Museum is being plundered. “Come to the meeting!” it said, but the poster disappeared well before the meeting day.

Just this week, at a City Council candidates’ debate a stone’s throw from the Spanish Colonial–style museum tower just northwest of the Pasadena Freeway, a room packed with voters yawned at promises of leadership and boasts of experience and accomplishments but cheered wildly at the two would-be councilmen’s vows to stand up for the Southwest.

“There’s this perception that only downtown Los Angeles can have museums,” complained José Huizar, who promised to block the institution’s operators — the Autry National Center — from moving a century’s accumulation of Native American baskets, arrowheads, kachinas (and, it must be admitted, human bones) from the leaky, bug-ridden Mount Washington tower to the modern and airy Autry facility in Griffith Park, or any new annex that might be constructed there.

“I join [City Councilman] Ed Reyes in saying that this is cultural piracy!” Huizar added.

His chief rival, Nick Pacheco, was no less adamant, noting that back when he was on the City Council, he authored two motions to protect the museum. How is it, he asked, that, in the two years since he left the council, nothing further has been done?

“The one who swings the biggest bat on this issue is the mayor,” Pacheco said, invoking the name of Mount Washington resident Antonio Villaraigosa — and pressing the mayor to take the lead.

target: Ready to
strike at heart of L.A. culture

The Southwest Museum? Cultural piracy? The words have become fixtures
on Northeast L.A. blogs and listserves, in neighborhood-council meetings, and
in the recent wave of art galleries and coffeehouses that have sprung up in this
historic and newly trendy part of town. And, apparently, downtown in school-board
meetings. Elsewhere in L.A., the Southwest has yet to re-emerge in public discussion,
five years after the fate of the venerable but dowdy institution’s future was
supposedly put to rest by the merger with the Autry.

But get ready. Absent some mediation from cooler heads, the angry and provocative charges bandied about at the time of the merger — that the cowboys (the Autry) are once again ripping off the Indians (the Southwest) — are poised to go citywide.

And this time they could get louder, in part because the political nexus of Los Angeles has shifted to this part of town, until recently a backwater, but now the home of some of the city’s most powerful figures. Like Villaraigosa.

Administrators of the now-vacant City Council office that Villaraigosa once filled, and that Huizar, Pacheco and others are trying to win, have slated an August 25 closed-door meeting to defuse the situation. But it will be tough. Huizar is only one of several candidates and elected officials who have promised to block any building permits for new Autry construction in Griffith Park, where a display and storage facility for the Southwest collection is to go.

In some ways, it’s a battle for possession of the city’s cultural heritage.

For decades, cultural Los Angeles has run east-west, from MOCA and the Music Center to LACMA and the Getty. Museum-support dollars — and campaign contributions — flowed downtown from the estates of Brentwood and Beverly Hills. The blue bloods of Pasadena also sent their bucks downtown and to the Miracle Mile and the Westside, but the historic arts and cultural institutions of the Arroyo Seco languished.

Now, some political and community leaders are arguing that cultural L.A. should also run north-south, moving up from the Watts Towers and taking in African-American landmarks like Central Avenue and the Dunbar Hotel, and the museums of Exposition Park, into downtown, to take in not just the Music Center but the new galleries and performance spaces. And then, on the way to Pasadena, through the Arroyo, past the remarkable home of Charles Lummis and the Victorian mansions of Heritage Square.

And, at its fulcrum, in Mount Washington — the Southwest Museum.

Between the lines of the argument come layers of ethnic politics and social complexity. The high-culture pipeline from downtown to the Westside is tailor-made for a car trip down Wilshire Boulevard or across the 10 and the 405. A north-south axis, in the eyes of its proponents, embodies a Los Angeles comfortable with public transit, since each of the icons on the north-south route is walking or shuttle distance from a Blue Line or Gold Line stop. The Southwest may not have much parking, but it’s got a Metro station that was placed there expressly to support the museum. Plus, the new axis arguably accords respect to blacks and Latinos, who have long been left out of the city’s elite-culture circuit.

“The notion that the Southwest Museum is out of the way is shaped by an old, pre–Gold Line view of Los Angeles,” argues Nicole Possert, chair of the Coalition To Save the Southwest Museum.

Possert is impatient with the Autry’s arguments that the Southwest’s collection would be better preserved and displayed if moved to Griffith Park, away from the home of Lummis — a near-legendary figure who virtually invented the term “Southwest” as it refers to the indigenous and Spanish and Mexican cultures of the area between Los Angeles and Texas.

“The cultural legacy of Los Angeles is about to be lost,” Possert claims. “If the city does not understand that our first museum is about to be replaced by something six miles upstream for no reason, what are we saying about our history? Our culture?”

Words like that baffle John Gray, executive director of the Autry National Center. Gray claims the Autry is saving the Southwest’s collection from ruin, and reviving an institution that virtually no one comes to visit. The Autry is rehabbing the building, protecting and cataloging the collection, and trying to come up with a master plan that puts the building to the best possible use and presents the priceless collection of anthropological and cultural treasures to the greatest number of appreciative people. So what’s the problem?

“They’re trying to hurt us, and they absolutely are,” Gray said of the most vocal coalition members. “To force us to make a financial commitment for a long-term permanent operating use of the Southwest Museum here, which we don’t have the money to do.”

Charles Lummis — newspaper editor, city librarian, civil rights advocate,
historic preservationist, civic booster — came to Los Angeles from Ohio on foot
in 1884. In a series of columns he wrote for the Los Angeles Times, he
described how he became captivated by the indigenous cultures he encountered while
walking through Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. By the time he arrived in L.A.,
he had dreamed up what was to become the Southwest Museum, housing his collections
of Native American and Spanish treasures and curiosities. But the building itself
didn’t open until 1914, and was already destitute on its first day of operation.

Over the post-Lummis years, generations of third- and fourth-grade schoolchildren walked through the displays of baskets and mockups of various indigenous nations’ living quarters.

But adults rarely sought out the museum, and it foundered. One director actually did commit cultural piracy, stealing and selling parts of the collection in the 1990s. Without money to rehab the building or to adequately house or display the collection, the museum’s board looked for suitors.

That’s where the Autry Museum of Western Heritage came in. Without the Autry, there’s a good chance that the collection would have been sold or dispersed, or would simply have perished from the mold and insects that plagued the building. The merger held forth the promise of saving both the artifacts and the building.

But it also left many people unhappy. The new institution founded by singing cowboy and movie star Gene Autry got a sweet deal from the city — virtually free land in Griffith Park, arguably in violation of the city charter. And the displays emphasized the American pop-culture image of the West — a 1950s cowboy-themed boy’s bedroom set, Gene Autry records, John Wayne movie posters, Billy Crystal’s New York Mets cap from City Slickers. The museum, renamed the Autry National Center, is currently featuring the spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone. Let’s face it, the place is a lot of fun. But the pop-culture emphasis (which is basically the public sheen on some serious scholarship conducted at the center) is a rather shocking counterpoint to the anthropological collections at the Southwest.

After the merger went through, Possert and other coalition leaders became alarmed that a master plan for the Southwest Museum and the nearby Casa de Adobe that they expected in 2003 still was not done. Then came the battle of the reports, with the Autry citing figures suggesting that the Southwest couldn’t draw enough visitors to support itself, and the coalition responding with figures that said it could. Then came the lawyers, with the Autry retaining legal powerhouse Latham & Watkins, and the coalition responding with its own land-use attorney. Then the media fray, with Times columnist Patt Morrison suggesting that the Southwest building could make a great Museum of Los Angeles, and the local community paper warning that the Southwest was being looted.

And the politicians weighed in. Villaraigosa, while still on the council, told coalition members that when he was elected mayor, he planned to “yank their chain,” referring to the Autry. Councilman Ed Reyes, whose district includes the Casa de Adobe, warned that he would not allow the “cultural piracy” of the neighborhood.

That remark, borrowed from the previous councilman, caught on and produced the poster that called on residents to attend a July meeting. While the pirate theme appealed to the coalition’s more militant members, others saw it as an inflammatory barrier to constructive talks, and the poster was quietly removed.

Villaraigosa’s old council district is for now in the hands of caretaker Lisa Sarno, who is convening the August 25 meeting. Her efforts have been hailed by coalition leaders like Eliot Sekuler, who said he is counting on city officials to block any new Griffith Park building permit for the Autry unless the Southwest retains its role as the home of at least part of the Native American collection for which the museum is known. But Sarno’s promises are more measured and may fall short of what coalition members are seeking.

“We are here to facilitate a dialogue between the Autry and the coalition so that some portion of the Southwest will be able to be maintained as a public space,” Sarno said.

If her efforts fail, there is still the hope that Villaraigosa will step in. But given the greeting that Autry curator Richard Moll received at one recent coalition meeting, even the mayor will have his hands full.

When Moll described his efforts to rescue, preserve and catalog baskets and other artifacts that sat unprotected at the Casa de Adobe, coalition members accused him of looting.

“You’re being an asshole!” one resident shouted at Moll. “Shut up and leave,” another said. So Moll left.

So far, though, the Autry is staying.

“There absolutely was a commitment and still is a commitment to save this collection,” Gray says. “There absolutely was a commitment and there is a commitment to save this building.”

But — save the collection for at least partial display or storage in the building?
To that, Gray answers only that “The discussion from the very first day was how
do you generate enough support and revenue for a particular use in this site,
or in Griffith Park, to warrant raising the kind of funds to rehabilitate this
building. Or expand the Autry building.”

LA Weekly