Autry cuts staff and pay, denies wasting taxpayer-funded grants

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Has the Autry National Center of the American West given taxpayers their money’s worth on $10.5-million in federal and state grants received for its venerable Southwest Museum of the American Indian site in Mt. Washington?

Not in the eyes of about two dozen protesters who gathered on the Southwest’s doorstep Tuesday morning, chanting “Open these doors!” and holding signs with slogans such as  “Where’s our millions?” and "Autry: Stop Starving the Southwest Museum!"

To them, the recent reopening of the 99-year-old, castle-like museum for six hours each Saturday is a poor return on the money, $9.5 million of it from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The Friends of the Southwest Museum Coalition, which coordinated the protest, has been pushing for years to have the site restored to full public operations, which have been minimal since 2006.

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The site’s future is primarily up to the Autry National Center, which opened its main museum in Griffith Park in 1988, then took custody of the financially desperate Southwest Museum in a 2003 merger that gave the Autry title to the Mt. Washington building and its collection – one of the world’s most prized troves of Native American art and artifacts.

W. Richard West Jr., the Autry’s president, said Tuesday that the public got exactly what state and federal officials had contracted for it to accomplish with the grant money: some building repairs involving damage from the 1994 Northridge earthquake, but primarily a major artifacts-conservation project aimed at restoring the Southwest’s damaged and neglected collection to museum-quality condition and securing it in an updated storage facility.

He envisions the Autry continuing exhibitions and other programs at the Southwest Museum, but sharing the site and its expenses with other users who are still being sought.

The Autry has long said it can’t afford to fully operate two museum sites, and West said the museum is continuing efforts to find partners, including commercial interests as well as other nonprofit groups.

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He said a study earlier this year by the city engineer identified $26.8 million to $41 million in needed repairs and utility upgrades at the Southwest Museum, which opened in 1914 and, under less contentious and financially lean circumstances, would be gearing up for a celebratory centennial.

Far from taking on additional costs that would come with running a second full-time museum site, West said the Autry recently has moved to cut expenses, reducing its staff by the equivalent of six full-time positions and imposing pay cuts that will kick in next year for most of the more than 180 employees who will remain.

He characterized last month's downsizing as a restructuring rather than a layoff, and said that operating hours, exhibitions and other public programs won’t be affected. Curators and educators weren't touched by the staff reduction, he said, but pay cuts will fall across the board.

West said the salary cuts won’t affect employees earning $30,000 or less – 43% of the staff – but that pay will fall 2.1% to 3.3% for others. The biggest reductions will hit the highest-paid personnel, including himself and other executives. West said in an interview earlier this year that his own first-year salary was $305,000.

West, who came out of semi-retirement to lead the Autry starting at the end of 2012 after a long tenure as founding director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian, said he’s aiming to boost fundraising to stabilize the Autry’s finances. He said the Autry expects to end 2013 with a budget deficit of more than $800,000. The projected budget for 2014 is $17 million, the Autry said, down from this year’s estimated spending of $17.8 million.

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The Autry's fiscal cornerstone is a $6.5 million annual donation from Jackie Autry, who founded the museum with her late husband, cowboy singer and film star Gene Autry. She has promised the Autry a $125-million endowment bequest upon her death – enough to continue generating about $6.5 million a year in expected investment returns.

About 85% of the government-funded artifact conservation project on the Southwest Museum collection is finished, West said, with the restored pieces already sent to the Autry’s new collection storage, library and curatorial site in Burbank. The remaining 15% will land in Burbank as well.

Interior renovations now underway at the museum in Griffith Park will create the first major permanent galleries for Native American art. They are funded largely by a $6.6-million state grant that's separate from the Southwest Museum's government outlays.

The Griffith Park museum is open six days a week; last month the Autry reopened a single 2,200-foot hall at the Southwest Museum on Saturdays only to display more than 100 Pueblo Indian vessels in a show called “Four Centuries of Pueblo Pottery.”

The coalition that's pushing for the Autry to do much more at the Mt. Washington site considers the Pueblo exhibition a mere gesture. Nicole Possert, who chairs the advocacy group, said a reasonable immediate goal would be to open the museum at least 1,000 hours annually -- about three days a week -- and display about 1% of the Southwest Museum collection of more than 250,000 Native American artifacts from tribes in Mexico and Central America as well as Plains Indians.

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Possert said if the Autry showed enthusiasm and determination to fully operate the Mt. Washington site, her group would happily rally to help with a major funding campaign to secure its revitalization. But as things now stand, two homeowners groups affiliated with the coalition are suing the city to revoke the gallery renovation permits it granted in 2011 as the Autry's landlord in Griffith Park.

The suit contends that installing Native American galleries in Griffith Park would have a domino effect, permanently supplanting the Southwest Museum's role as a showcase for the Native American collection, and robbing the city of an institution that's identified in its Master Plan as an important economic and cultural asset. A trial judge's dismissal of the case is on appeal.

“It seems like [the Autry] doesn't want to resolve" the dispute over the Southwest Museum, Possert said. “We want to resolve it and have a great museum for Los Angeles. We’re willing to dance. Our partner is not.”

But West said the Autry has other partners in mind, including a recently established advocacy group called El Plan del Southwest Museum. El Plan has set up a website that, like the Friends of the Southwest Museum site, posts documents and information pertaining to the contentious saga of the 2003 museum merger and its aftermath. 

The new group says on its site that it wants to pursue a less antagonistic discussion of the Southwest Museum's future and is “dedicated to working with the City of Los Angeles and the Autry National Center."

For the record, Nov. 13 4:25 p.m.: An earlier version of this post contained these incorrect numbers: the lower tier of coming Autry pay cuts is 2.1% rather than 1%, and the lower range of the estimate for building repairs and upgrades needed at the Southwest Museum is $26.8 million rather than $25 million. Also, Jackie Autry's promised bequest is $125 million, not $100 million.


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