December 11, 2002

A union of cowboys and Indians

By Christopher Reynolds
Los Angeles Times

The Autry Museum of Western Heritage -- a young, wealthy institution created by a singing movie cowboy to explore western myth-making along with history -- will consummate a two-year on-again, off-again courtship by merging with the cash-strapped, collection-rich Southwest Museum.

The merger rescues Los Angeles' oldest museum from a life-threatening financial crisis and brings the Southwest's 350,000-item inventory, one of the world's leading collections of Native American art and artifacts, under the same umbrella as the Autry's $100-million endowment.

The move, Autry Director John Gray said, gives the museums a chance to present "a dynamic dialogue between the cultures that made up the American West. There's no other museum that really does that."

Autry and Southwest officials said their pact, outlined in a signed memorandum of understanding, came together through votes on Nov. 21 by the Autry's trustees and directors and on Friday by the Southwest trustees.

Although museum officials said they hope to raise a new building to accommodate many Southwest programs adjoining the Autry's courtyard in Griffith Park, the museums plan to retain separate identities. However, their research functions are to be combined in an Institute for the Study of the American West, and together the three entities will be known as the Autry National Center of the American West.

The institute's first mission: To spend six months deciding how to use each of the museum sites, and to chart a course for how to most effectively unite the institutions.

To start the merger rolling, Gray said, three of the Southwest's 24 trustees will join six to nine of the Autry museum's directors to form a new board of directors to steer the umbrella organization. Most other top supporters of the two museums -- including the Southwest's 21 remaining trustees and the more than 80 members of the Autry Board of Trustees -- will be united on a second board, a level below the board of directors.

Gray will serve as top executive of the parent organization, and Duane King, executive director of the Southwest Museum, will remain in his position.

Autry officials estimate the overall cost of the merger at $100 million, and they aim to cover its cost with new joint fund-raising in coming years.

King said the organization's new stability "should make it easier to attract support, including support from Native American communities." The new enterprise, he said, "becomes greater than the sum of the parts."

In the short term, Autry officials said, the Autry is likely to spend from $500,000 to $1 million to sustain the Southwest's operations in 2003.

Although museum officials are making no guarantees about the historic but bedraggled Southwest building on Mt. Washington, Gray said, "the goal is to have it operate in a public way," while acknowledging that renovating the aging structure might cost $10 million.

For any expansion in Griffith Park, the Autry will need city approval. In recent years, the Los Feliz Improvement Assn., an organization of residents near the park, has been wary of projects that could bring substantial new traffic to the area.

Those and many other details of the museums' union will be worked out in a "due diligence and planning process" that will include solicitations of public input over coming months, Gray said.

Under current plans, the two museums will continue to have separate curators and docents, managing their own collections and exhibitions. They would be free to lend items to each other -- which the two have already been doing for years, officials noted.

The Southwest Museum, founded in 1907, has for the last decade suffered through a series of leadership crises. In 1993, former Director Patrick Houlihan was convicted of removing about 20 valuable baskets, tapestries and paintings from the museum's renowned Native American collection and secretly selling or trading them.

The Southwest's current need for financial help was made clear by a report commissioned a year ago. The confidential report, a draft of which was obtained by the Times, was undertaken by Daniel Belin, an attorney and nonprofit management consultant. It found that the museum's trustees were contributing too little money, paying too little attention to finances and consequently squandering their credibility among other potential donors.

The report also sounded out alliance possibilities with representatives of several other cultural organizations -- including the Autry, the casino-rich Pechanga Indian tribe in Riverside County, the Heard Museum in Phoenix and the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian in Washington. Except for the Autry and the Pechangas, most expressed doubts about the cost and logistics of preserving the collection, its current site and the institution's independence.

The Southwest board "had become more a collector's club than a museum board," said a source familiar with the museum's internal operations who requested anonymity. In the last two years, more than a dozen board members have left the Southwest Museum.

The Southwest Museum's King acknowledged that his board's fund-raising had lagged in recent years, but he said giving accelerated dramatically in late 2001 when, faced with financial calamity, board members gave or raised $1.1 million as part of a campaign to meet a $250,000 matching grant from the Ahmanson Foundation.

The Southwest's partner in this marriage comes from vastly different roots. From its beginnings 14 years ago, the Autry has been viewed by many museum insiders as an institution with more money than gravitas, its 51,000-item collection running from 19th century maps to memorabilia from Autry's show-business career, its leaders drawn from outside traditional museum management ranks. Gray, who took over as director in 1999, spent most of the last 20 years an executive for First Interstate Bank.

But in recent years, the museum has added staff and mounted increasingly ambitious exhibits in its 45,000 square feet of gallery space. Programming this year has included an exhibition on Jews in the Old West and presentations on the history of the African American cowboy.

Outsiders saw the merger on one level as an eleventh-hour rescue operation but also as an exciting marriage of resources.

Jack Shakely, who has watched the evolution of both museums over more than a decade in his role as president of the California Community Foundation, hailed the merger's "wonderful" possibilities.

Had it not come through, he added, "a lot of us were worried that the temptation to sell artifacts might become irresistible" to the Southwest's leaders.

In late 2001 and early 2002, it seemed likely that the museum would form a different kind of partnership, with the Pechangas. The deal would have given the Pechangas a chance to display items from the Southwest collection in a new cultural center to be built in coming years; in exchange, the Pechangas were to pay the museum $750,000 to $1.3 million yearly. But when the proposal went to the reservation's general membership, voters balked.

Pechanga spokesman Butch Murphy said that members wanted more information and expressed "concern over the amount of money being talked about." Southwest officials declined to say what other institutions apart from the Southwest had expressed interest.

Michael Heumann, chairman of the Southwest Board of Trustees, said in a prepared statement that the move was backed with "strong, strong consensus" after "a thorough exploration" of options.

Two for one

The Southwest and the Autry will merge under an umbrella financial organization; research functions will merge but the two will be siblings rather than one entity. A new Southwest building is planned near the Autry in Griffith Park; possible uses of the historic Southwest building on Mt. Washington will be studied.

Southwest Museum

Founded: 1907

Operating budget 2000-01: $2.2 million, with a reported deficit of $903,000

Attendance revenue 2001-02: $35,066

Endowment: $3.4 million

Autry Museum of Western Heritage

Founded: 1988

Operating budget 2001: $14.5 million

Attendance revenue 2001: $435,000

Endowment: $100 million

Source: Southwest, Autry museums