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Villaraigosa and Huizar Renege on Promises to Protect the Southwest Museum

by Ross Plesset Friday, Jan. 25, 2008 at 10:27 PM

"Obviously, the Mayor and Council Member Huizar are together with the Autry. My personal opinion is that politics; money; and lobbying, that Autry pays very highly for, have trumped the will of the people of Highland Park and Northeast L.A." -- Nicole Possert, co-chair, Friends of the Southwest Museum Coalition

Villaraigosa and Hui...
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On January 31st of last year, Councilperson Jose Huizar spoke strongly in favor of keeping the Southwest Museum as a full-functioning museum, not as a truncated exhibit space as envisioned by the Autry National Center (which acquired the museum in 2003 through a merger). “We know that the Autry wants to expand its Griffith [Park] site in order to possibly put more of our resources [there],” said Huizar at a public meeting. “I will be opposed to any move to expand that site until we take care of the commitments [applause] we’ve laid out today. . . . [T]he direction I’m taking is those items that have been expressed by the Coalition.”

He described the museum as “what is arguably the heart and soul of Northeast Los Angeles.”

When Villaraigosa was running for mayor in 2005, he famously said, also in front of a large gathering, that as mayor he would “yank their chain,” to get the Autry to comply with the wishes of the community.

However, on September 27, 2007, Villaraigosa and Huizar formerly announced the formation of the Southwest Society, whose members include the Autry. The Friends of the Southwest Museum Coalition, to whom Huizar had pledged support, was completely shut out.

Additional information on the background of this situation as well as the Autry’s position, can be found here: Update on the Southwest Museum (report and photos). The Autry’s official statement regarding the museum’s future can be found at:

The Friends of The Southwest Museum Coalition is asking people to keep an eye on their website for an announcement about a public hearing, which is expected to be called on short notice. (It could possibly happen on February 20th with the location TBA). Other ways that people can help are mentioned on that site under “take action.”

Here is a recent interview with Nicole Possert, co-chair of The Friends of the Southwest Museum Coalition regarding the current situation. The conversation also touches upon the question of why Native Americans do not own and operate the museum

Q: In the past, both Villaraigosa and Councilperson Huizar spoke strongly about supporting your position on the museum, that the existing structure should be used fully, not partially. Huizar was saying this as recently as last year, when he spoke at a public meeting at Ramona Hall. However, last fall, I got a notification that both Huizar and Villaraigosa were now supporting the Autry even though the Autry’s plans are unchanged.

Possert: That’s correct. That’s unfortunate, but it’s corrects.

Q: How did you find out about it?

Possert: Tom Topping from the Boulevard Sentinel came back from the hastily-called press conference and called and said, “Where were you guys?” [Laughs.]

[T]hey held a press conference at the museum that I guess some people were invited to and some people weren’t [including] the community and media members. There were some members of the media who later told me, ”I never got invited to the press conference.” I don’t really know what their process was or how it came about.

We, the Coalition, had been in pretty close communication with the council office—we thought—about resolving the issue.. [A]t community group meetings that we’ve had for the last four years, everybody was welcomed all the time. But in the summer of last year, the council member specifically said, ‘Your coalition is a group of organizations, and I’d really like to speak to people who can speak on behalf of their group.” So we did a private meeting in the sense that we didn’t announce it to the world, but we asked everybody who represents the Coalition organizational membership to come and meet with the council member at his offices at the Eagle Rock City Hall.

In that meeting in June, he reaffirmed how important the issue was and that he needed to make a resolution that he would take all of this input back to Autry. Fifty leaders of the 70 groups came to that meeting. Several wanted to participate on phone, but couldn’t, or live in other parts of the country, so they couldn’t get to the meeting. But 50 of 70 groups came, and he heard overwhelmingly the consistent position that we have always put forward: that their [Autry’s] own consultants’ resolution and conclusion is a fine solution. We’d like an even bigger vision with this expanded concept to be considered, but obviously just keeping it a full museum is the first primary goal. He heard that loud and clear.

After that meeting his statement to this group was: “I’m going to take this back to the Autry. I hear you, etc.” We didn’t hear anything until the announcement put out in the press release form. He didn’t bring everybody back together and have a discussion with the leaders. He basically said, “I’ve come to this conclusion after talking to the Autry.” He made the decision as to how he wanted to do it, which is fine, he is an elected official--but it was not inclusive of the majority of the Coalition leaders. There were several people that he did speak to who weren’t really representing the Coalition anymore, in Mount Washington specifically, that are supportive of this and are now on this new Southwest Society. They’ve flip-flopped to use a nice political term [laughs]. And now they’re on this Southwest Society plan to support what Autry has always offered to the community, which is nothing near a full operating museum in the historic facilities—that means both the Casa de Adobe and the Southwest Museum.

Q: The Autry’s plans for a new museum facility in Griffith Park were pretty vague as of the last meeting I went to [on January 31, 2007].

Possert: They are much clearer now in the sense that there is a draft environmental document, and we are hearing that the approvals for the environmental—and then obviously that gives them the right to build—may be decided as early as next month in February. So we’re trying to gear up to get people to understand that the decisions are about ready to be made in Griffith Park, which really impacts whether we will have a museum here or not.

Q: What is your current plant to deal with this?

Possert: What we’re working on is still the power of participation, and because there is a formal approval process for Autry’s project in Griffith Park, as soon as we have a date for a hearing, we’ll be doing extensive outreach in trying to let everybody know. Once that decision is given, it changes again whether or not we really have a future. It’s the last potential to make a big difference in the future of the Southwest Museum and to encourage people to go out and speak their opinions.

We are also raising funds through the efforts of the Coalition and individuals for a legal challenge to that approval process because we feel that the environmental report [currently in draft form] was insufficient in looking at the impacts, especially the impacts to the Southwest Museum. We are hoping that that doesn’t have to occur, that we can find a solution without involving lawyers and time, but we’re preparing for that.

Q: And Huizar consulted with this other group to get as much input as possible?

Possert: The Southwest Society? I think politically that organization—if it is even an organization. We don’t even know what its structure or real intention is—is the political cover for the Autry to do what they’ve said they’ve always wanted to do. Now they have a couple of community people speaking as individuals, not representing a group saying, “No, the community supports Autry.” So it’s the classic divide-and-conquer strategy. Several people decided that they better be in line with the politics rather than be in line with what’s in the best interest of the community.

Q: Did Villaraigosa change his position for the same reasons as Huizar? Or because Huizar did?

Possert: It’s hard to know [laughs]. I really don’t know how they make decisions. When you have 50 leaders representing all sorts of organizations in your district and all over telling you one thing, and you don’t respect them enough to even come back and tell them the decision you’ve made “on behalf of them” to support something that they won’t support, it’s hard to understand.

But obviously, the Mayor and Council Member Huizar are together with the Autry. My personal opinion is that politics; money; and lobbying, that Autry pays very highly for, have trumped the will of the people of Highland Park and Northeast L.A.

Q: That seems to be the way things go in L.A., with the South Central Farm…

Possert: The people’s voice is irrelevant in the bigger view of their world. It’s pretty disheartening to me, as somebody who’s been an active community member for 15 years trying to have institutions invest in our community, to see one so easily able to change the politicians’ hearts for what’s in the best interest of their economics, not the communities.

Q: If they have hearts. You’re being polite

Possert [Laughs] I am being polite, yes. You are recording this, so… [laughs].

Q: The same thing ‘s happening here in Echo Park. There’s part of a wildlife corridor that people didn’t want developed, and the City Councilman, Garcetti, acted sympathetic, but he’s turned around.

Possert: . . . I think that all matters. I spent five years on the Audubon Center at Debs Park.

Q: During a mayoral debate, Villaraigosa, who had been a Mt. Washington resident, stated very strongly that he wasn’t going to let this happen if he became mayor.

Possert: Yes. I think he must believe that he’s doing something, he’s gotten them to “give the museum two rooms” and to not abandon it.

Q: But isn’t that what the Autry was offering already?

Possert: Yes. Who says that that is even true? They say things all the time, and then they change their mind. There ‘s no enforceability to that.

And In the EIR for their new facility, it specifically says there is no project at the Southwest Museum site. So if in a legal document they can’t even commit to discussing that they do have plans for it, then it gives further validity to the argument that they really have no plans for it. There are no plans.

Q: Is there anything in terms of action for readers of this article?

Possert: Right now, two things. Check our website, When the hearing dates are going to be [known], we’ll post them there, and plan to attend. There might be one on February 20th, which would be the Recreation and Parks Commission Meeting. It’s been rumored that Autry was targeting that commission meeting for the first approval of their project, but it hasn’t been confirmed. Our lovely city will give us one-day notice [laughs].

And the second thing is if there’s an ability to make a donation to help us. Right now, we are looking at raising funds, and we have a way on our website under “take action” to donate online through PayPal, credit card, or where to send a check. That would just go to everything and anything: outreach, we may need to get a bus to get families over to where the hearings are. Who knows, the hearing could be in the West Valley. Who knows where the Commission meets? Also, building up a sufficient reserve in case some of our organizations need to take up a legal enforcement issues.

. . . Hopefully they will see that the community is not fooled by the politics of the situation because we continue to fight. I wish I didn’t have to use that word, but that’s really what it is. We have to fight for our community.

Q: It’s become pretty obvious to me that they aren’t our leaders, they aren’t even representing us. It’s up to us.

Possert: Exactly, it is up to us. I encourage everyone, whether or not we’re pessimistic about our actions, to continue to take action.

Q: There are victories sometimes.

Possert: Exactly. We have the Anahuak Youth Association, which was one of the pivotal groups at the Cornfield and Taylor Yard. The politicians wanted the cornfield to be commercial warehouses. They didn’t have a vision to make it a park, but the community spent many years fighting the developer at Cornfield and fighting to acquire parkland for Cypress Park. Those are the types of leaders that we have on our coalition. We see that it’s going to be a long time, and we know that it has to come from us, and we can’t give up.

[The conversation segues to ways in which other parts of Los Angeles would benefit from the Southwest Museum.]

Possert: For East L.A. it’s really important because when the Gold Line extension opens into East L.A. and Boyle Heights next year, all of those people could easily take public transportation—the mayor’s agenda, right?—to a museum that they don’t feel any connection to because right now it’s really hard to get from East L.A. to Northeast L.A., even though we’re close by, because of the hills. It’s a natural divide.

Q: It is. I try to keep my driving down because of global warming, and so I’ve had to miss out on events in East L.A. for that reason.

Possert: So now all these people who’ve never experienced Northeast L.A. and people in Northeast L.A. who’ve never experienced East L.A. will be able to in a 10-minute ride on public transportation. The opportunity to link the whole East Side in this really significant way is incredible.

[O]ur students at the Franklin HighTransportation Academy did a study of the schools that could walk to a metro station and get to the Southwest Museum. They didn’t even study the extension of the Gold Line, or the Orange Line, or the Green Line, just the Red, Gold, and Blue Lines. And they found like 120,000 kids from schools could take public transit to the museum instead of even worrying about getting buses. So if you added all the schools in East L.A. and Boyle Heights, it would be an incredible number. It would probably be close to 200,000 kids, we think.

And what better message to our youth and our families to see that there’s a way to have culture that’s affordable and to get around in a different way? It’s a wasted opportunity.

Q: It’s sad to pass by the museum now. Sometimes I’m on the Gold Line, and there are families wondering what the Southwest Museum is, and someone has to explain to them that it isn’t open. They see the Southwest Museum Station.

Possert: Yeah, we made them name it that [laughs]. One of our leaders, Dan Wright, lives above the museum on Crane. He comes down Museum Drive every morning, and he has found on several occasions now in the last year, tourists standing at the entrance near the elevator at the bottom with a metro map, looking perplexed, seeing the gates closed, and not knowing what to do. So he’s pulled over and had these wonderful conversations with them. “We’re in from Vegas, this is the only museum on the metro map, we thought it must be important, but is it closed?”

So it would work. Tourists sometimes don’t like to drive in Los Angeles. One day I was riding [the Gold Line], and there were some Germans, and it was clear that they didn’t quite know where to get off. I asked if they spoke English, and I started this conversation with them, and I told them, “No, you can’t go to the museum.” And they’re like, “But it’s a museum, we must see it.” Germans love museums, I guess. I said, “I’m sorry, today’s Tuesday, it’s closed.” And then I gave them some other advice to go into Old Town Pasadena.

As someone who wants people to come to Northeast L.A. and keep their money here, I had to tell them, “The only place that you would probably have a walkable, good opportunity to see something would be old Pasadena!" I don’t want to do that! But we can’t say that now.

Q: . . . I think the museum is important. When I was in college I took a course in Native American history, and for extra credit I went there and wrote a report about everything I saw. And I was able to correlate what we’d studied throughout the semester with the displays.

Possert: Isn’t it great when you can actually see what you’re studying? I always learn more when I can experience something as opposed to the book..

Q: This isn’t related to what’s happening now with the museum, but before the Autry took it over, there were negotiations for the Pechanga to acquire and run the museum. I think the plan was that they would have part of the collection in a separate museum on a reservation and the rest of it in the Southwest Museum. There was some disagreement which caused the whole thing to fall though.

Possert: That was a set of private negotiations between the Southwest Museum and the Pechangas. We’ve heard a whole bunch of reasons as to why the merger discussions failed, but the one that sticks in my craw just as a human rights person: one person said to me, “If the former Southwest Museum would have offered the Pechangas the same cozy deal they offered to Autry, we probably would have been in partnership with the Southwest Museum today.” They didn’t even offer an equitable arrangement. That was the feeling.

The Pechangas--the Indians—were not given the same deal as, ahem, the “white people” on the Autry Board.

Q: That would be consistent.

Possert: I don’t know if that’s true because those were closed, private discussions, but the reality is that the discussions and the merger between the Pechangas and the Southwest fell apart, and within six months, the deal with the Autry was done.

It was reported in the papers the summer before, and I guess that would be 2002, that “there is a potential deal between the Pechangas and the Southwest Museum.” But they never really went into the specifics, just that there was discussions. It was in the L.A. Times a couple of times, and then there was one story that said, “Okay, deal’s off.” I’m sure for them they’ve moved on. They have their own museum now that they’re creating down in Temecula, I think.

The discussions I had early on, which was “What’s going on here? Would the Pechangas or some of the wealthy tribes be interested?” We didn’t meet a lot of openness. In fact, one of the other tribes that we talked to (it wasn’t a tribe leader) said: “Why would we buy or acquire what’s already ours by right through NAGPRA [Native American Graves and Reparation Protection Act]? They can take care of it until we want it, and then we’ll go ask for it back, and they have to give it to us if we want our artifacts back.”

There’s a whole variety of reasons why the Indian community is not active in this solution. It’s like any culture, you can’t just put it in a cookie cutter and say, “Well they all feel this way.”

Q: L.A. is made up of tribe members from all over.

Possert: And if it were just a Native American collection of the Chumash or the Tongvas, that would probably be different. But the collection of what’s in the museum is, I think someone said, close 100 different tribes. Lummis went to South America and Central America: Peru, I think Guatemala… Of course, they’ve never really given a detailed accounting of the collection itself, but you have to assume that it’s not just even the technical Southwest as we would define it today, meaning California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico. Certainly it was the Southwest in his mind, which was probably Alta California and Mexico now.

When someone says, “Where does the Native American community stand on it?” Well, not any one of them can speak for the “Native American community,” just like I can’t say I represent every single person in Northeast L.A. That would be ridiculous.

Q: At the public meeting about the Southwest Museum in the summer of 2006, there were a few Native Americans, including Pamela Villasenor. She expressed concern about the ancestral bones at the museum. Has there been any change with that?

Possert: I don’t know that the Autry hasn’t done anything to further resolve that issue. It’s not something that they often talk about, I don’t know why. It seems like it should be resolved.

[The conversation returns to the current endeavor to save the museum.]

Possert: . . .Unfortunately, the politics aren’t in our best light right now in terms of the future. But ever optimistic, we will remain hopeful that through showing the real community is larger than three people [laughs], the politicians will come back around when it’s voting time again [laughs]. Huizar just got re-elected, so he’s got two-and-a-half more years before he’s gotta worry about re-election. But this could take a while. I think they’re going to push through and try to get their approvals as fast as possible so that people don’t have time to organize and whatever. So we’re in it for the long haul no matter which way it goes. We hope that they can “see the light” and find a solution without all that long delay and extension process that we will take next.

I would still sit down tomorrow and try to work with the Autry if they really came to the table with compromise or with anything that solved what we’ve ultimately been trying to ask for. All we’re asking for is a measly two percent of the collection to be shown here—it takes a full building to do that though [laughs], not the size of a house. Put the rest of it someplace else and access it to more of the public in Griffith Park if you can do that, but don’t do that over us. They’re making the decision of doing a new thing rather than investing in a community.

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