Looking to ease tensions between backers of two Los Angeles cultural institutions, the City Council delayed a planned renovation of the Autry Museum on Tuesday, requesting a new review of the $6.6 million project.
In a rare move, the City Council decided to seize authority over the project from the city's Board of Recreation and Park Commissioners, which had approved the plans two weeks ago. The Autry is seeking to add two exhibition areas and a garden space on about 18,000 square feet of space at its Griffith Park site.
Backers of the Southwest Museum of the American Indian had objected to the project, fearing it would detract from their own efforts to reopen the Mount Washington facility.
Relations between backers of the Southwest Museum and Autry executives have been strained since the two institutions merged in 2003. To the dismay of northeast Los Angeles residents, who hoped the Autry National Center would revitalize the Southwest Museum, the museum instead was closed in 2009.
Also angering northeast L.A. residents is the Autry's plans to use a small number of the 300,000 artifacts stored at the Southwest Museum in the planned exhibition.
City Councilman Jose Huizar, who led the move to assert council jurisdiction over the issue, argued residents in his district "barelyknew or hadn't had a chance to attend the hearing" on the Autry's renovation.
"Regardless where you stand on this issue, the people have the right to be heard," Huizar said. "That is a fundamental principle of our democracy."
While a notice was posted on the city agency's website, the meeting was sparsely attended after city staffers failed to send out a routine email announcing the meeting, Southwest backers said.
"This was snuck through in a secret meeting," said Mark Kenyon, of the Mount Washington Homeowners Association of the approvals for the Autry, one of dozens of supporters who showed up at City Hall.
Amid uncertainty about the future of the Southwest, community groups in northeast L.A. then asked city officials to tie permit plans for Autry expansion to a legally binding agreement to support a viable Southwest Museum in perpetuity. But after negotiations between Huizar and museum officials broke down, the Autry called off a planned $175 million expansion.
Currently, the Autry National Center uses the closed Mount Washington museum as a place to sort through Southwest's collection of artifacts and art pieces.
To make it a fully functioning museum just isn't possible because of the building's small 9,800-square-foot footprint, says Joan Cumming, the Autry's senior director for marketing and communications. The Autry is seeking a partner to re-open the Southwest Museum in another capacity, but one that would be tied to the Autry. A re-opening wouldn't come before 2013, she said.
At the City Council meeting, Autry executives tried to convince the City Council to see the renovation in the context of efforts for the larger museum.
"The correlations between this (renovation) and the Southwest Museum are unfair," said Daniel Finley, president and CEO of the Autry National Center.
Before the council voted unanimously to send the Autry proposal to a subcommittee Friday for further review, City Councilman Tom LaBonge, whose district includes Griffith Park, called for an understanding between the two groups, arguing that "there's a relationship that has to come."
Charlie Fisher, a Highland Park resident who appeared at Tuesday's hearing, plans to attend Friday's hearing of the Arts, Parks, Health & Aging Committee. He hopes the subcommittee will include a caveat that states the Autry must agree to operate the Southwest Museum as an accredited museum in exchange for the approval of building permits.
"All we are asking is that the Southwest Museum be accredited as a museum as it was before," Fisher said.