THE COALITION’S VISION FOR REBIRTH OF A MUSEUM
The Coalition’s vision is one of a loving rehabilitation of the existing historic Southwest Museum Building and a sensitive expansion of both exhibition space and other related complementary uses much in the same way Griffith Observatory is currently being renovated to care for its future as an important part of Los Angeles history. For this reason, 20,000 square feet of the exhibition space that Autry now proposes for Griffith Park instead should be added to the Southwest Museum site to enhance public access to the Collection in the setting originally envisioned by Charles Lummis.
The Merger Agreement provisions and public proclamations of the Autry at the time of the merger in 2003 made clear an intent of the Autry and Southwest Museum Boards that any exhibition space in Griffith Park was intended to expand exhibition space for the Southwest Museum collection – not replace the exhibition space on Mount Washington.
The Coalition believes Autry should have the foresight to take advantage of the rising tide of Heritage Tourism. As baby boomers age they are no longer vacationing on white water rafts and skiing off mountaintops: they are interested in relearning their heritage by touring historic sites such as the outstanding sites today located in the area at and around the Southwest Museum. Building on the Southwest Museum and the substantial public transit investments made at its nearby rail station, the Coalition sees a great City and private investment opportunity to locate other cultural institutions in the area near the Southwest Museum to build on the cultural heritage sites of the Charles Lummis Home, Heritage Square, the Deb’s Park Audubon Center, and many other historic sites.
The 12.5-acre Southwest Museum site has tremendous undeveloped potential virtually ignored by the former Southwest Museum Board of Directors and the Autry Management and Board. The Museum site has land available for complementary development. For instance, the homeowner association in Mount Washington proposed to Autry the development of an independently run restaurant with stunning views of Catalina Island to Mount Baldy on a hillside perch above the museum. Homeowner organizations often are stereotyped as opposed to new development but the restaurant proposal was a community-generated idea addressing a genuine need in the area while generating potential important new visitation and public exposure to the Museum site.
In 2003, the former Southwest Museum Board recognized the need for a new collection storage building for the Museum and prior to the merger had $3 million raised or pledged for this new building – referred to in the Merger Agreement as the “Norman Sprague Cultural Resources Center.” This money and Project disappeared into the Autry merger and no study has ever examined the feasibility of storing all or part of the Southwest’s collection on-site.
The Metro Gold Line, with rail transit connections throughout Southern California, has opened with the City’s first museum located at a rail transit station. During the three years the Autry has managed the Southwest Museum, there has been no marketing directed at tourists visiting hotels adjacent to the Metro rail system or promotion of the museum to the tens of thousands moving into new living spaces in downtown Los Angeles. Even worse, Autry’s own marketing materials and website does not show the exact location of the Southwest Museum rail station to aid visitors. It is ironic that tens of millions of taxpayer monies were invested in bringing transit to the door of the Museum and now that investment will be unnecessarily stranded if the Museum is taken away at the hands of the Autry.
Parking is limited at the Southwest Museum for large events although it remains adequate for a projected annual attendance of 100,000 with a portion of that number arriving via rail transit. The Coalition procured the services of an historic preservation architectural firm to take Autry’s program ideas for the Southwest Museum site and prepare conceptual architectural drawings showing how the Arroyo Seco site could be creatively expanded with new construction to resolve the parking issue and provide for an exciting and improved Southwest Museum expanded to accommodate numerous other cultural uses that Autry claims will be economically feasible at this site. The Coalition’s development proposal for the site, now on the table and so far ignored by Autry, is to excavate the current parking lot and flat pad adjacent to the historic museum building to expand the parking lot from 70 spaces to 150 spaces. With proper marketing of the rail access to the Museum, it is no longer necessary to provide 200 vehicle spaces to accommodate the largest events at the Museum like the Intertribal Marketplace.
On a dramatic plaza built to the back of the historic museum entrance, new wings of the building can be added to respectfully maintain the prominence of the original museum building. The Coalition’s proposal would expand total exhibition space of the Southwest Museum to 22,500 square feet, just about what most museum experts concur is necessary to create a satisfying visitor’s experience. The addition of a museum store and café at the entrance plaza also increases the likely foot traffic and museum store sales per square foot. Also, the addition of an indoor theatre for conferences, Native American performances, and community use, eliminates the historic need to maintain Sprague Hall in the original museum building as a large open space for such uses. Sprague Hall could now be re-imagined with state-of-the-art video and interactive exhibits drawing upon the vast resources of the Southwest Museum collection to create a world-class museum destination.
The Coalition has always envisioned that the rehabilitation and expansion of the Southwest Museum exhibition spaces should help Autry to create dynamic and innovative museum experiences that engage younger and adult generations raised in the multi-media age of television and the internet. The thing that makes people come to a museum are exhibits geared to the idea that learning is fun and engaging. Refreshed and rotating exhibits drawn from and interpreting the vast Southwest Museum collection using modern multi-media museum experiences provide tremendous opportunities for exciting new shows – and refreshed shows means increased visitation and greater recovery of the cost of operating the Museum site.
None of these visionary ideas have been explored by Autry to date because the Board of Directors and management of Autry stubbornly refuse to conduct the public and transparent master planning process committed to in the Merger Agreement.
The only study performed, led by historic architect Brenda Levin, who oversaw the rehabilitation of the Bradbury Building, the Wiltern Theatre, the Los Angeles City Hall, and the Griffith Park Observatory, concluded that a rehabilitation of the Southwest Museum with expansion on site would cost $22.8 million. The plan, called Option B, was a verification that modern museum-display standards could be achieved and the historic exhibitions spaces could all be utilized for the Collection but it was never subjected to public input as to whether that was even the best idea for the Museum site.
The Coalition believes that if there were a study of a properly refurbished Southwest Museum with state-of-the-art engaging exhibits, a proper marketing plan to maximize visitor attendance (and promotion of the convenient use of rail transit), complementary development of the site with a restaurant, a modest cultural center, or some combination of similar ideas never examined by Autry, that an exciting rebirth of this vital cultural and architectural icon of the historic Arroyo Seco is feasible.
The Coalition’s vision for the Southwest Museum is a vision incorporated into the contractual promises of the Merger Agreement where Autry promised to continue to operate the Southwest Museum at the Arroyo Seco site and assume the charitable trust obligations of the former Southwest Museum Board. These promises were contained in the Merger Agreement signed by Mrs. Autry as Chair of the Board of Directors of the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum. The Coalition does not think it is unreasonable to ask the Autry to comply with a contract it already signed which, at the present time, the Autry seems intent to breach.
Our vision therefore is simply getting the Autry to respect and follow the promises it already made as a condition of being entrusted with our heritage and history. It’s a solution that can be achieved by working in collaboration for the benefit of our community, the City and beyond.