The City Council will decide Tuesday if proposed renovations to the Autry National Center’s Museum of the American West, which includes transferring artifacts from the closed Southwest Museum of the American Indian to the Griffith Park campus and the conversion of an exhibit into an outdoor teaching garden, can be approved without an environmental review.
Los Angeles City Councilman Tom LaBonge passed a motion Monday morning at a special Arts, Parks, Health and Aging Committee meeting that supports the Recreation and Parks Commissioners’ action in May to approve the museum’s renovations and exempt the project from provisions of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
LaBonge, who chairs the committee, said that the evidence shows that the project is exempt from an environmental review.
The museum’s renovation project, which includes reconstruction of two indoor exhibit galleries; "First Californians" and "Dreamers, Doctors, Basketweavers," and the conversion of the Autry Museum's existing "Trails West" exhibit into an outdoor teaching garden along with other improvements was awarded a $6.6 million state grant under Proposition 84 in April. It's one of 44 projects in the state to receive funding.
The project cannot move forward until the City Council gives its approval and the museum risks losing the grant if a decision is not reached by the state’s July 12 deadline.
An attorney for the museum stated in a letter last week to the City Council that the proposed remodeling is exempt from CEQA because it does not expand the physical structure of the museum. The outdoor teaching garden will be enclosed by a 13- to 21-foot-high fence and will not be visible to guests outside of the museum, the letter stated. The museum is privately owned and operated, but signed a 50-year ground lease with the city in 1987.
The main point of contention among opponents of the project is the Autry’s inclusion of artifacts in the proposed renovated galleries from the historic Southwest Museum in Mount Washington that closed in 2009. Autry representatives have said that the project will use one percent of artifacts from the museum. The Southwest Museum, which merged with Autry in 2002 after it fell on tough financial times, does not meet current building codes, and it would cost more than $21 million to make the 93-year-old building fit to run as a functioning museum, said Joan Cummings, a spokeswoman for the Autry National Center.
The state grant did not allow a project that would exceed $7 million in cost, so Autry could not apply to renovate the Southwest Museum.
Daniel Wright, an attorney who filed a CEQA appeal for the project on behalf of the Mount Washington Homeowners Alliance and historian Charles Fisher, says that the city must preserve the Southwest Museum as a whole. The renovations, which change a use of exhibit space, “should have triggered environmental review,” Wright said.
“Operating the Southwest Museum as anything other than a museum violates the city’s general plan,” he continued.
Many employees of the Autry National Center spoke at the meeting to confirm that the museum has a future plan to use the Southwest Museum as a multi-use space. The opponents, however, wanted a promise in writing.
“We want a guarantee in writing that the Southwest Museum will be renovated,” said Fisher.
Pamela Hannah, an Autry employee who worked at the Southwest Museum beginning in 1998, became tearful when she talked about her relationship with the museum.
She said the Autry is seeking a community partner to work on renovating the Southwest Museum, but currently, a “fully functioning museum is not possible.”
The building cannot function in the 21st century, she told the Arts, Parks, Health and Aging Committee Monday morning.
Monday’s motion was passed with a 2-1 vote. Councilman Ed P. Reyes voted against the Park Commissioners’ approval of the renovations.
“It is painful to see this level of tension over something we all want to see open,” he said.
“This is not cowboys versus Indians,” he continued. “I know the Autry has done tremendous work.”
Committee member and Councilman Herb J. Wesson, Jr., who seconded LaBonge’s motion to uphold the Park Commissioners’ approval of the project and CEQA exemption, urged the Autry employees to “quickly come up with language that satisfies [Councilman José] Huizar.”
Huizar, whose district encompasses the area of the Southwest Museum, passed the motion last month that asserted City Council jurisdiction over the Park Commissioners’ approval of the Autry project.