UPDATE: The Cultural Heritage Commission will consider a proposal today from the Griffith J. Griffith Charitable Trust to designate Griffith Park as an historic-cultural monument to protect it from city efforts to develop it. The great-grandson of the man who donated the park to the city in 1896 will make the presentation at a hearing at 10 a.m. in Room 1010 at City Hall.
This is a complicated story of promises betrayed, public trust trampled and ethics ignored — the kind of things that take place every day, in one way or another, when the city’s people stand in the way of the politics of City Hall.
It is the stuff that sleepless nights are made of for ordinary citizens trying to preserve what’s good in their communities, the stuff that happy paydays are made of for those on the inside of a bankrupt political culture.
It sweeps in priceless American Indian artifacts and the city’s oldest museum, the giveaway of public money to private interests, the corruption of the Griffith family’s gift of a great “people’s park” to the city and the web of insider relationships that are so much a part of L.A.’s “Chinatown” history.
Mostly, it’s the story of what’s killing L.A., the story of leaders that operate in secret and put private interests ahead of publc interests, the theme that runs through the heart of L.A.’s history for 150 years, and of the disregard for the needs, values and interests of local communities.
The focal point of this particular drama is the Southwest Museum campus in the Mt. Washington-Highland Park area where community activists are battling the Autry Museum which has assembled a high-powered team that includes respected architect Brenda Levin, the high-powered lobbying firm Latham & Watkins and PR man Steve Sugerman, the City Hall insider convicted in the DWP/Fleishman-Hillard scandal.
“The fight to save the museum is at the crossroads where politics meets culture in Los Angeles,” says Daniel Wright, the local attorney who helped the effort to preserve this community treasure for years and with activist Mark Kenyon has put together a remarkable website called The Biggest Black Hat in the West..The Autry National Museum’s Theft of the Southwest Museum.”
There was an astonishing collision at that crossroads at a 4 1/2-hour hearing on Monday on Autry’s plan to expand dramatically in Griffith Park and put the Southwest to death as a museum a century after it was born as the heart of the area’s identity.
Autry CEO John Gray declared at the hearing he had “saved the Southwest, and put a plan in place to make it viable on a day to day basis.”
But not as a museum. Instead, its collection — worth between $300 million and $1 billion, far more than the Autry’s – will be put on display in the expanded Autry’s proposed “Southwest Galleries.”
To many in the audience, the plan to save the Southwest Museum dropped like a bombshell: The public will pay the bill to end the Southwest’s life as a museum.
Under an extraordinary deal, the Los Angeles Community College District quietly agreed to use money from its $3.5 billion bond issue on the Nov. 4 ballot to renovate the Southwest Museum and use it as a satellite campus, thus relieving those costs from the financially-burdened Autry.
The deal was cut without community involvement or discussion and inserted as a line item in the bond issue by College Trustee Mona Field, according to the Arroyo Seco Journal.
“The bond measure plan came as a
surprise to participants” at the City Hall hearing, it reported.
Members of the Friends of the Southwest Museum Coalition pleaded that the Autry’s 2003 takeover of the Southwest contained a commitment to keep the museum and its collection together and the building’s conversion to a school “could jeopardize the Southwest Museum’s position on the National Register of Historic Places,” said historian Charles Fisher.
Coalition co-chair Nicole Possert, a preservationist, told the hearing officer: “The Southwest is an icon that
can once again be lifted to the level of the Observatory: “When the taxpayers paid for a Gold
Line Southwest Station, they were not paying for an educational
facility, they were paying for an (active) museum.”
The Black Hat blog headlined the latest twist in the plot this way: Coalition Reveals Autry Plan to Shift Costs to Rehabilitate SW Museum to Los Angles Taxpayers.
“This bait and switch by the Autry demonstrates a reckless disregard for
its fiduciary duties to operate the Southwest Museum as a separately
identified and independently run museum institution,” they wrote in a post today.
The Autry’s website took a decidedly different view of the situation in a posting under a small banner promo labeled “A New Plan.”
“The City of Los Angeles and the Autry National Center have
begun an important public review process for the Autry’s plan
to modernize and reconfigure its Griffith Park facility. The
modernization plan provides greater access to larger segments
of the collection, especially the Southwest Museum Collection,
which has been hidden from the public for decades.”
The drama over the Southwest Museum goes back to the 1990s when it fell on hard times and no one paid much attention until the Autry made its play, boasting that it had $100 million in assets and would come to the rescue and restore the Southwest’s glory.
Activists claim that the Autry inflated its assets 25-fold and actually had less in assets than the Southwest. They have filed complaints with the state board that regulates accountants over the financial statements the Autry used and with the City Ethics Commission against PR man Steve Sugerman.
The Black Hat blog tells the back story of what unfolded:
At the time when the Southwest Museum Board entrusted the assets of the
Southwest Museum to the Autry in 2003, the Autry was proclaiming its
economic superiority to the financially struggling Southwest Museum.
An investigation by the Friends of the Southwest Museum Coalition has
now revealed that the claims of Autry’s wealth as a museum institution
were false. Since the year 2000, the Autry Museum has booked a $100
million pledge from the Autry Foundation (the family foundation of Gene
and Jackie Autry) as a $100 million asset. In fact, since the time of
the pledge, the Autry Foundation has had no more than $17 million of
assets on its tax return balance sheet. The Friends of the Southwest
Museum have filed a complaint with the State Board of Accountancy
demanding that the CPA licenses of Autry’s accountants be suspended or
revoked for participation in an 8-year effort to inflate the value of
the balance sheet of the Autry Museum using the $100 million pledge
that had no visible means to be paid.
So was the Autry Museum ever in the position to meet its promises to
treat the Southwest Museum buildings and collection with the respect
and financial responsibility represented when the Autry was entrusted
with the assets? No. On the day of the merger with the Southwest
Museum, the Autry took possession of a collection of artifacts valued
between $400 million up to $1 billion. The Autry took possession of
about 12 acres of prime hillside property with a nationally significant
museum building. The Autry also took possession of almost $4 million
of invested securities and $1.2 million in cash in the possession of
the Southwest Museum. On the same day, Autry’s tax returns show that
it had $1.8 million of invested securities (endowment) and $1.6 million
in cash. Do the math: on the day of the merger, Autry had less liquid
assets than the financially failing Southwest Museum.
At the public hearing on August 18, 2008, John Gray claimed that
the Autry has “saved” the Southwest Museum. Many now think that the
Autry recklessly put the Southwest at greater risk because the claims
of it being a “wealthy” institution were materially misleading. Since
the merger, the “investments” made by the Autry consist almost wholly
of getting donors to redirect Southwest’s cash and pledges to paying
Autry’s costs of the merger and conservation of the collection. Autry
may have filled some cash flow problems or it may be that actually the
Southwest’s own funds were re-directed and Autry claimed “credit” for
saving the Southwest Museum largely with its own money.
To Be Continued…