After 10 years and $10.5M, why is the Southwest Museum still closed?

71960 full
71960 full

The Southwest Museum will celebrate the 100th birthday of its current Mount Washington location next year, but the centennial party could be a bit of a letdown, as one of Los Angeles' oldest museums remains mostly shuttered after nearly a decade. 

Ten years ago, the floundering Southwest Museum and its collection were taken over by the Autry Museum. Autry officials received about $10.5 million in funds — largely through the Federal Emergency Management Agency — to make repairs to the museum formally known as the Southwest Museum of the American Indian, which preserved the Southwest's largely Native American art and artifacts.

But "saving" the museum has many interpretations. Rick West, president and chief executive of the Autry National Center of the American West, said that the Autry has done its job by relocating much of the museum's collection to places with greater security and temperature control.

“With the merger of the Autry with the Southwest Museum, our top priority has been to properly care for and maintain the collection after decades of neglect with the goal of making the collection accessible for research, exhibits and programs in Los Angeles for decades to come,” said West in a statement. 

In order to do this, Autry officials closed the Southwest Museum to use the space as a staging and sorting area. Just last month, the museum's gallery reopened with one exhibit. It's open to the public only on Saturdays.

But some activists argue that one exhibit is not enough. On Tuesday, about 30 protesters gathered outside the Southwest Museum, claiming that Autry officials have "stiffed" taxpayers on their investment.

"You can’t open a museum with one gallery for six hours a week. And so let's get beyond the tokenism and reopen the Southwest Museum as a real museum,” said Nicole Possert, a spokesman for the Friends of the Southwest Museum Coalition.

The coalition consists of about 70 organizations that range from homeowners associations to neighborhood councils and city officials. The coalition wants the museum to be fully operational again, serving as a tourist attraction and a historic institution in Los Angeles. 

Possert said the Southwest Museum's collection is "one of the largest and most important collections in our nation." She said that, in addition to Native American works, the museum has pieces that outline the history of California, as well as the formation of Los Angeles.

Although it seems that nearly everyone can agree on the importance of Southwest's collection, what to do with it is still up for debate.

West said the Autry's priority is to preserve the artwork, and so far they have worked their way through about 85 percent of the collection.

The Autry's president said it would be difficult to reopen the Southwest site as a standalone museum and have it continue to be profitable into the future. 

So the future of the Southwest site is unknown. The Autry, city officials and the local community are trying to come up with new uses — ones that will generate enough money to keep it up and running well into the future.

The museum is in L.A. Councilman Gil Cedillo’s district. He did not return repeated requests for comment.

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