Community Split Over ‘New’ Plan
by Edward Rivera
A recently announced agreement between 14th District Councilmember Jose Huizar and Autry National Center President John Gray over the future of the Southwest Museum has been met by a storm of protests in Northeast LA, and seemingly raises more questions than it answers.
In addition, the agreement, which consists of a memo from Gray to Huizar, creates a new organization—The Southwest Society—made up of elected officials and various local citizens who will meet to direct fundraising for the Autry and Southwest Museum. Curiously, no current members of the Friends of the Southwest Museum Coalition, made up of 70 local community groups who have led the fight to keep the Museum open, were named to the group.
A local ad hoc group, the Northeast Progressive Alliance, kicked up a wave of protests, both public and private, when it announced its support of the “agreement,” hailing it as a victory. Most community members did not know any agreement or plan was forthcoming and were put off by being left out of whatever negotiations took place.
“This is not an agreement nor a contract, and the major victory points are still vague,” said Nicole Possert of the Highland Park Heritage Trust, a longtime activist who has been fighting to expand the Southwest Museum campus and keep it open as a full-time museum.
The agreement does not confirm the future existence of the Southwest as a continuing full-time museum open to the public.
What is most telling about the new plan and the reaction from the community is that it represents a clear split in Northeast LA, among those who have participated in the sometimes-volatile discussions with the Autry over the future of the Southwest Museum. Many on both sides are former friends and have fought together on many issues.
The members of the Alliance—Eliot Sekuler, Tony Scudelari, Grayson Cook, Carol Jacques and others—are former members of the Coalition, and very active politically. All have close ties to Huizar and Mayor Villaraigosa. (Interesting, the Southwest Society does not include First District Councilmember Ed Reyes nor State Assemblymember Kevin DeLeon.)
Sekuler was the former Arroyo Seco Neighborhood Council rep to the SW Museum Coalition, but resigned his post. A week later, the ASNC board voted against his position with regard to the museum.
Possert said she was “surprised that (the SW Museum Coalition was) not involved in the negotiations. Huizar did not include us. The Northeast Progressive Alliance is not a member of the Coalition. Who are they anyway?”
Alliance Spokesperson Eliot Sekuler described the Alliance as a “group of friends conceived over cups of tea in (his) living room.”
Possert continued, “It was the Coalition that first suggested a blue ribbon committee. Fundraising should not supplant what the Autry is committed to.”
Characterizing the agreement, Possert said, “This is an incremental step in the process. This is not an enforceable agreement. What’s a measly little letter going to do? This is just an interim step. We need real world transaction standards.”
She continued, “What the Autry is saying to us is, ‘Your culturally and economically diverse community that is the heritage of the West does not deserve a museum, does not deserve this in their back yard, we are putting in our yard instead.’”
Huizar, responding in an e-mail, said, “I would say that approximately 90% of what the community asked for from the Autry was secured. This is a win-win situation.”
Autry Center President Gray told the Arroyo Seco Journal, “The Autry has clearly articulated its vision for a vibrant new cultural and educational use at the Southwest Museum site. The creation of the Society will help raise funds on top of the millions the Autry as already raised for the site, the collection and the landmark building. Rescuing this important landmark and creating a vibrant use benefits the neighboring communities in the Arroyo and all of Los Angeles.”
Asked about the enforceability of the agreement, Gray said, “The Autry has made its commitment to the Southwest site absolutely clear. The Autry has secured millions of dollars for the Southwest, and is in the process of a sustained multi-year effort to restore and rehabilitate the museum and the Casa. Standing with the Mayor of Los Angeles and Councilman Huizar, Autry President John Gray reaffirmed his commitment to this site. (Full memo is available at www.arroyosecojournal.blogspot.com)
In response to why the SW Museum Coalition was not involved in the most recent negotiations, Gray said, “Councilman Huizar met with the Coalition and was given a list of demands. He summarized those demands in a letter to the community. The commitments from the Autry answer completely the overwhelming majority of the Friend’s requests. The Society is very inclusive of diverse voices from the Native American community, cultural leaders in Los Angeles (including Linda Dishman from the LA Conservancy) and the stakeholders in the adjacent neighborhoods in the Arroyo.”
Asked how many members of the Blue Ribbon Committee have been actively involved in the SW Museum discussion over the last five years? Gray, said “Many.”
Gray said the Autry has been consistent in its vision for the future of the Southwest Museum, with exhibit space and expanded public uses.
Said Gray, “The agreement announced yesterday comes after years of public discussion, including a public process led by the City’s Human Relations Commission. The Councilman and Mayor are very supportive of the future vision and are confident it will be achieved.”
At least one local activist countered that position. Dan Wright, president of the Mt. Washington Homeowners Alliance, said, "The announcement of a blue ribbon fund raising committee for the Southwest Museum by the Mayor and Councilmember Huizar is not credible. First, it has no Board members of the Autry on it. If the Autry is not going to help itself obtain funds for the Southwest Museum, why would sophisticated donors give them money?"
Wright added, “I think that this committee has been announced now, just before Autry tries to get (City) entitlements to double its museum space on leased taxpayer land in Griffith Park, as a mirage to hold up before the decision makers at the public hearing.
“It's a slap in the face of their own Native Mexican ancestors whose lives and artifacts were envisioned by Charles Fletcher Lummis for display and conservation at this dramatic hilltop place of honor."
The Friends of the Southwest Coalition has scheduled an emergency meeting for this coming week.