Judge Rules Against Community Group In SW Museum Case
Decision is one of several new developments in nine-year-old community issue
|June 1, 2012 - There have been a series of important developments in the fight to save the Southwest Museum include an adverse court ruling and City Council action. -|
|Arroyo Seco Journal|
|SPECIAL REPORT BY MARGARET ARNOLD, NEWS EDITOR|
The judge in a court case brought by Northeast Los Angeles community members alleging violation of state law in the relocation of the Southwest collection to Griffith Park, has ruled against against the community members. The formal court decision is expected to be posted imminently.
Former Southwest Museum staff and volunteers were among many visitors at the mini-reopening May 19.
The ruling is one of several new developments in the nine-year struggle to keep the historic Southwest Museum open in Mount Washington as a fully functioning museum.
The Los Angeles City Council this morning unanimously passed a motion calling for the creation of a working group to strategize the future of the Autry Center in Griffith Park and the Southwest Museum and its affiliated Casa de Adobe in Northeast Los Angeles.
A very small portion of the Southwest Museum is now open to the public every Saturday.
A steady stream of visitors arrived at the Southwest Museum for the first opportunity to visit in six years.
And, although the ruling is not yet official, the case was sparked following the Autry and the Southwest merger almost a decade ago. Northeast residents gathered at the Mount Washington museum were told that there would continue to be two distinct, functioning museums under the umbrella of the Autry National Center for the American West. A lot changed in the following years. The Southwest Museum has been shuttered while its world class collection of artifacts is undergoing much needed preservation and cataloguing efforts. The Autry National Center has been public about the fact that it is looking for a different use for the Mount Washington structure.
Southwest Museum supporters at City Hall.
Meanwhile, Friends of the Southwest Museum, a coalition of more than 70 civic groups, has steadfastly maintained that the Southwest collection and its building, purposefully sited near the Arroyo Seco by founder Charles Lummis, are inseparable and that together the artifacts and structure represent Lummis’ vision of a place to grapple with what it means to be part of the American Southwest.
The motion calling for a working group has had a long road to the City Council floor. It was originally introduced in June of 2011. It then spent most of the year pending before the Council’s Arts, Parks, Health and Aging Committee, where Committee Chair Tom LaBonge, an active supporter of the Autry, never moved it forward. After two changes in committee leadership, it was finally heard under Committee Chair Richard Alarcón in April.
The text of the motion, as originally drafted, mandated “that the City Council instruct the Chief Legislative Analyst’s Office (CLA) to establish and convene a City working group comprised of the Department of Recreation and Parks, the City Administrative Office (CAO), City Attorney, CD 14 [José Huizar], CD 4 [Tom LaBonge] and CD 1 [Ed Reyes] to engage in formal discussions with the Autry National Center of the American West, museum experts, stakeholders, and community groups and: (1) develop a long-range plan for the Autry Center at Griffith Park, (2) develop a long-range plan for the Southwest Museum and Casa de Adobe site at Mt. Washington, (3) advise as to the status of the lease renewal process between the City and the Autry Center, (4) review the Merger Agreement and the implementation of its mandates (5) identify funding sources for renovation and operation of the Southwest Museum, and (6) report to the Arts, Parks, Health and Aging Committee and Budget and Finance Committee within 60 days on the progress of these discussions.”
The Council Motion was originally made by Councilmember José Huizar, who currently represents the Southwest Museum site. When new City Council District maps take effect in a month, the site will be represented by Councilmember Ed Reyes, and Reyes has taken a lead role in moving the committee formation through the Council. Besides Reyes, the motion carries seconds from Councilmembers Tom LaBonge, who represents Griffith Park where the Autry leases its site from the City, and Eric Garcetti, another Northeast L.A. Councilmember whose district runs from just above Mount Washington to the border of Griffith Park in Atwater Village.
At the April Arts, Parks, Health and Aging Council Committee meeting, Reyes laid out three goals: movement away from the confrontational tone that discussion of the two museums’ fates has taken over the past several years, facilitation of the Autry’s goals for itself and “bringing the Southwest up to what it ought to be.”
“If we’re all in this together, we all benefit together,” said Reyes.
At that April meeting, Alarcón and Reyes were respectfully challenging of City Attorney contentions that the Council should not look at the Southwest Museum because the lease agreement pertains only to Griffith Park and because the City is not party to the merger agreement between the two institutions. The City Attorney’s Office also had concerns about what the Council could direct Rec and Parks to do and about whether Reyes and LaBonge could both be part of the working group without violating the State’s open meeting law. Hence, after consultation between Reyes’ office and the City Attorney, the agencies required to report back to the City Council Committees have been narrowed to only the CLA and the CAO, but there is still an expected report on progress in 60 days.
Many Northeast Los Angeles residents disagree with the City Attorney contention that the Southwest should not be part of a city discussion for a variety of reasons. The Autry is highly subsidized by the City in that it sits on 12.75 acres of city parkland leased for only $1 per year. The Southwest Museum is specifically identified for protection as a community centerpiece under city planning law. Possession of a major collection of artifacts carries with it responsibility to the public, as does status as a nonprofit organization. As the oldest museum in Los Angeles, the Southwest is a specific treasure and serves as a repository of city and regional history. And the Autry has a history of turning down funding for the Southwest, a locally and nationally registered historic landmark.
All parties in the long dispute over the fate of the Southwest Museum and its collection seem to have united behind the idea of a working group. There are still issues to be resolved, however.
A letter from Autry Nation Center CEO Daniel Finley to City Council President Herb Wesson refers to “an effective process to identify and pursue…uses for the facilities that are appropriate and ensure a sustainable future for the facilities.”
The letter makes no commitment to a museum use at the Mount Washington site. The Friends of the Southwest Museum Coalition, meanwhile, will settle for nothing less.
“So when we’re talking about how excited we are to be here,” Daniel Wright of the Mount Washington Homeowners Alliance and Friends of the Southwest Museum Coalition told the Arts, Parks, Health and Aging Committee, “we have to be excited about pursuing the museum use, not a change of these buildings into something else. This collection deserves and should be there, and that was the promise of this merger agreement, and it’s been completely ignored.”
“My focus is on getting something very real in the ground that allows us to open up the museum again,” said Councilmember Reyes.
While making it clear that he had no desire to see anything negative happen to the Autry, Councilmember Alarcón also said, “We need to put a lot more effort into the Southwest side of this equation…that people can enjoy the collection.”
Further, it remains to be seen exactly who will serve as part of the working group.
The Finley letter says, “We believe it will be important to have active participation by key experts in the field of historic preservation, museum management, the philanthropic sector, the Native American community, among other important stakeholders and community leaders from across the City.”
Many Northeast residents are planning on something more homegrown.
“Your taskforce ought to consist of the city family analysts listed in the original motion by Councilmembers Huizar, Reyes and LaBonge,” Wright said during City Council public comment a week ago. “This should be your taskforce, not the Autry’s. Certainly it should consult and receive information from the Autry, from the Friends of the Southwest Museum, from the affected neighborhood councils and from the stakeholders of the communities affected…Let’s get a City Council that has some information weighed and reviewed by staff of your city family departments after an equal and credible consultation process.”
Arts, Parks, Health and Aging Chair Alarcón was adamant that he would “support a working group that is community focused and not part of the old boys’ club.”
“I want to make it very clear,” said Alarcón, “I intend to move forward to do everything I can to protect the value of the Southwest Museum, and to the extent that it’s related, the Casa de Adobe. I do want to say this. The recommendation from the Autry Museum to have other museums come in and be part of the working group, you can do that anyway. I don’t know why you’re not doing it now. You should do that. I recommend you do that. But I don’t believe that serves the interest of the working group that was intended by Mr. Reyes.”
“I intend to support a more community focused working group,” said Alarcón, “that truly cares about the Southwest Museum and is not part of the old boys’ club. I mean that’s what it looks like when you present your motion to have all these other museums; it looks like the boys are going to get together and make decisions about museums. That’s not what’s going to happen. And so I urge you to be vigilant partners in working with Councilmember Reyes to do whatever you can to preserve the Southwest Museum.”
“I don’t believe the community can’t offer as much as other museums,” Alarcón said a month later. “I’d be in the community every day trying to hustle up support.”
Meanwhile, a steady stream of people arrived at the Southwest Museum Saturday, May 19 for the first opportunity to enter the museum since 2006. The Autry National Center has announced that it will open a small bit of the facility every Saturday.
The open area consisted basically of the space at the bottom of the stairs. What was available to be seen included eight display cases of miscellaneous artifacts ranging from arrowheads to storyteller figures, the ethno-botanic garden (which is in the midst of a rehab), mural paintings from the Santa Fe Indian School and glimpses through glass doors of former exhibit halls filled with cleaned and catalogued items from the collection.
Arroyo Seco Neighborhood Council and Friends of the Southwest Museum member Ann Walnum pointed out that the dioramas of Native American life that used to line the tunnel into the museum—a feature that many Angelenos remember vividly from school trips to the museum—are still nowhere to be seen.
According to Stan Moore of the Historic Highland Park Neighborhood Council and Friends of the Southwest Museum Coalition, the reason Autry’s decision to open a bit of the Southwest on Saturdays is that the Autry was at risk of losing $6+ million in grant money if the Southwest remained locked up tightly.
Regardless of the reason for the opening, Northeast L.A. residents welcomed the opportunity to connect with friends at the local historic landmark and welcomed the experience of the day in a spirit of optimism that someday enough of the facility will be open to officially qualify the site as a museum again.
In other Southwest Museum news, a ruling on a court case brought against the City of Los Angeles by the Mount Washington Homeowners Alliance and the Highland Park Heritage Trust is expected June 21. However, the judge has already indicated that the ruling will not go well for the community organizations. Spokespeople for the organizations are not commenting for the time being, as the ruling is not final, and as they have not yet had the opportunity to read the full decision.
The two organizations contend that a state-funded Autry renovation, undertaken in large part to display Southwest museum artifacts in Griffith Park, is subject to environmental review under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Neither the Los Angeles City Council nor the City’s Recreation and Parks Commissioners deemed a CEQA review to be necessary as they gave the go ahead to the Autry remodel on city parkland.
The review process, if required, would have led to a thorough vetting of a variety of impacts of the project on its local area and would have required putting forth alternatives to the remodel, including the possibility of maintaining the Southwest Museum as the collection’s home, an alternative deemed reasonable by noted preservation architect Brenda Levin at the time of the merger. The law suit accused the Autry of attempting to bury the Southwest Museum name–an action contrary to promises the Autry made in the 2003 merger agreement and contrary to the City’s own Northeast Los Angeles Community Plan. The case was filed in July of last year.