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Stubborn Autry Museum Asks City Council to Break Law

PARKS POLITICS - As a long-time volunteer for the Southwest Museum and a founder of the Friends of the Southwest Museum Coalition (70 community and civil rights organizations),

I remain amazed at the Autry Museum’s stubborn effort to violate our General Plan – the City’s fundamental zoning law – in a series of project proposals intended to relocate the Southwest Museum to the Autry’s building in Griffith Park.  

A recent version of this idea was approved by the Recreation and Parks Commission but City Council voted under Charter Section 245 to assume jurisdiction over the issue due to concerns about transparency of the approval process.

After Autry angrily withdrew its first expansion proposal in 2009 which endangered preservation of the Southwest Museum under the General Plan, the Autry Board developed a new project idea, to move its collection storage out of Griffith Park and begin relocating the Southwest Museum’s premiere exhibits from Mount Washington to Griffith Park’s storage area.  

The new project and the one withdrawn in 2009 are equally offensive to the City’s General Plan which contains a policy requiring the City to only take actions that “maintain the Southwest Museum on Mount Washington.”

Autry applied to the State for a $6.6 million grant to pay for relocation of the Southwest Museum’s most important Native American exhibits to its Griffith Park building.  State officials, unaware of the unlawful nature of the grant proposal, tentatively funded it.  

This puts the Los Angeles City Council in an unfair position: Should it ignore its own General Plan and approve Autry’s project to avoid losing the State grant? Or should the integrity of the City’s fundamental law -- the General Plan -- prevail?  Autry knows its proposal is contrary to City law, but is asking Council Member Tom LaBonge to ram it through City Council on Tuesday, June 21, 2011, nonetheless.

Recently, the California Department of Recreation and Parks announced that the Autry Museum was selected to receive a $6.6 million Proposition 84 grant of taxpayer dollars to pay for the construction of permanent and rotating galleries of Native American themes and a native plant education garden at its Griffith Park site.  On the surface, to the average person and typical City Council member, this sounds like good news: $6.6 million returning to the City’s economy.

But dig deeper and you’ll learn that Autry’s grant application should have never been submitted.  That’s because the project for which it seeks state funding is designed to forever destroy the Southwest Museum – an institution Autry promised everyone it would “respect” by maintaining its separate identity and operation as part of a 2003 merger with the former Southwest Museum Corporation.  

For more than 50 years, school field trips to the Southwest Museum brought to life history lessons about the State’s and Southern California’s earliest inhabitants.  Autry’s move will render the historic building redundant to exhibiting its own collections – a building for which we taxpayers already shelled out $25 million for a Metro Rail Gold Line station at the front door to help bolster its economic feasibility.  That clears the way for Autry to sell or give the building away – essentially stealing the Southwest’s priceless collections for itself and forever extinguishing the “Southwest Museum” name/institution.

At a hearing in Council Member Tom LaBonge’s Arts and Culture Committee on Friday, June 3, 2011, Council Member Ed Reyes had some questions he needed answered.

The Casa de Adobe (a replica of a hacienda from California’s pastoral farming days), from which Autry removed all the artifacts and locked the door, lies in Reyes’ District.  “What are Autry’s plans for the Southwest Museum and Casa de Adobe?” Reyes asked.  Autry’s new CEO and President, Daniel Findley, essentially took the Fifth Amendment: “I will defer to the City Attorney as to whether I have to answer that question,” Findley replied.  

When it became clear that Findley would refuse to answer Reyes’ questions about plans for the future of the historic Southwest Museum structures in Northeast LA, Reyes simply read his questions into the record and they remain unanswered.

However, it does not take a rocket scientist to figure out Autry’s goal.  Autry signed the 2003 merger agreement promising to rehabilitate the Southwest Museum if its expert team found it physically and economically feasible.  

Apparently the Autry Board was shocked and dismayed by the report of its experts;  it established the fact that the historic museum, with a new rail station at its front door to boost attendance, could be rehabilitated for $22 million to meet museum exhibition standards (constant humidity and temperature).  

And it established that if Autry properly “respected” the Southwest Museum with adequate marketing, the Southwest Museum would earn at least 38% of its modest annual operating cost. (Another museum expert study concluded that the historic museum could cover as much as 66% of its operating costs – especially if marketed to tourists in hotels along the rail system.)  The average museum earns between 30-50% of its operating costs – it’s the Board’s job to make up the difference in fund raising.

Well, this was not the answer some on the Autry Board of Directors wanted to hear.  So they put a letter on the front of their own expert study that proclaimed that the Board had “determined” that it was not feasible to operate the Southwest Museum solely as a traditional museum.  So the community tried to engage the Autry on a complementary restaurant idea as an add-on to the site to increase visitor traffic.  The Autry sidestepped that proposal too.

Then Autry simply declared that the Southwest Museum site was not “feasible.”  It became clear it was not a resource problem since we know major donors have offered Autry money to restore the Southwest Museum which Autry has turned down.  

It was and is an attitude problem about Autry’s fiduciary duties.  When the Autry declared the Southwest Museum site “infeasible,” its Griffith Park site was earning only about 11% of operating costs.  The Southwest Museum is a more efficient location to operate than Autry’s Griffith Park location but the Autry Board refuses to publicly acknowledge it.

The path the Autry has voluntarily (and stubbornly) chosen over the past few years puts it on a collision course with overwhelming public opinion and the fiduciary duty it owed when it agreed to take charge of the assets of LA’s first and most historic museum – the Southwest Museum.  

Over 7,000 people in LA have signed a petition demanding that any expansion of Southwest exhibition halls in Griffith Park be conditioned on a requirement to rehabilitate and continue using the historic Southwest Museum to show its collections.

In a previous debacle, the Autry in 2005 set out to seek from the City permission to dramatically expand its Griffith Park building in order to physically “merge together” the Southwest Museum and the Autry by putting the Southwest’s exhibits in the expanded Autry building.  

This grandiose proposal failed when John Gray, the former CEO and President, failed to raise the money to build it and the Los Angeles City Council agreed to let Council Member Jose Huizar, in whose District the historic Southwest Museum lies, negotiate with the Autry for a condition that the Autry would complete rehabilitation of the Southwest’s Building, and operate it as a condition of the Griffith Park expansion.  

This condition sought to hold Autry accountable for promises made when it obtained title to the Southwest’s assets.  Rather than meet its fiduciary duties, the Autry withdrew the expansion project blaming Council Member Huizar and our Coalition for demanding protection of the City’s history.

And dig a little deeper to understand why holding the Autry to its promise is so fundamental: Autry paid nothing - $0 – to receive the Southwest’s assets and misrepresented its own assets to get its hands on the collection.  The only thing Autry gave in exchange for the Southwest’s assets was Autry’s word – and now Autry wants to renege on that. If allowed, the Autry’s actions merely constitute a white collar crime – a theft of the Southwest Museum under false pretenses.

In the 2003 merger agreement, Jackie Autry signed a certification of the Autry’s assets indicating that Autry had over $100 million in endowment.  This balance sheet, as concluded by non-profit and accounting expert Jack Siegel, was “materially misleading” because the Autry booked a promise of Mrs. Autry to leave $100 million after her death.  Such ethereal promises to pay in the future are not supposed to be booked by a non-profit, but Autry continues to mislead grant funding agencies and donors about its financial capacity.  It actually operates with a structural deficit it hides under that $100 million paper asset.

A closer examination of the books of the two museums reveals that on the day of the merger, the Autry had only $1.8 million of invested securities in its endowment, not the $100 million Autry CEO John Gray was telling the Los Angeles Times and elected officials.  In contrast, the “failing” Southwest Museum had about $4.7 million of cash and endowment investments in its balance sheet – and all of that was real money.

Autry took that $5 million of cash and investments and put it into its own endowment and bank accounts.  Autry also received the Southwest’s collections which are worth at least the amount it insures it for - $400 million, and the Autry received a spectacular 13-acre hillside location, and a nationally significant museum building complex in need of some rehabilitation and better management with a Metro Rail station named “Southwest Museum” at the front door.

What Autry supposedly brought to the merger was a $100 million endowment (illusory and non-existent), fundraising capability (driven by a perception it was a wealthy institution which it was not), and a promise to rehabilitate the Southwest Museum if the master planning study showed it was feasible (a study the Autry rejected in bad faith).

After Autry cancelled its first expansion project in 2009, Council Member Jose Huizar reached out to offer the City’s help.  

He offered the Autry up to $25 million in low interest federal economic stimulus loans to pay for the complete rehabilitation of the Southwest Museum complex; he offered the City’s in-kind support for a State Proposition 84 grant application to propose a museum exhibition project at the historic Southwest Museum site; and he offered to help explore a special cultural institution assessment district to support Northeast Los Angeles institutions which could help repay the loans used to renovate the Southwest Museum.

The Autry Board, because its goal apparently was always to toss aside the historic building, refused this significant offer of financial assistance through the City.  Instead, and this is why the new grant is so ill-conceived, it quietly applied to the State Proposition 84 grant program for $6.6 million to relocate the Southwest Museum’s primary exhibits inside the ground floor of its Griffith Park location.

The Autry’s strategy is apparent: Obtain a substantial grant so the City Council would not stand in the way of relocating the Southwest Museum’s exhibits over in Griffith Park.  Once the $6.6 million camel’s head was under the tent on this grant-funded project, Autry would continue to move its collection storage out of Griffith Park (to a warehouse purchased in Burbank) and would convert its existing Griffith Park building to at least 25,000 square feet of “Southwest Museum” exhibition space.

On Tuesday, June 21, 2011, our City Council regretfully has only one path for decision that has integrity: It must veto the Autry’s current project proposal and send it back to Recreation and Parks staff to properly assess the inconsistency of the proposal with General Plan policies that protect the Southwest Museum.

(Ann Walnum, Founder of the Friends of the Southwest Museum)
-cw

Tags: Southwest Museum, Autry Museum, Griffith Park, Mount Washington, City Council, Prop 84, Department of Recreation and Parks




CityWatch
Vol 9 Issue 48
Pub: June 17, 2011