Modest Proposal: Let USC Run the Southwest Museum

It appears that USC has been wanting to expand into museum running. The university was a rumored suitor for MOCA last year, and now it’s announced a deal to take over the Pacific Asia Museum.

A modest proposal: Maybe USC should think about taking on the Southwest Museum as well. The Southwest Museum’s current steward, the Autry National Center, has the historic site open only one day a week, with a bare-bones display. Mt. Washington homeowners say the Autry reneged on its pledge to restore and reopen the SWM. Recent community group demonstrations have created dreadful optics.

The Autry counters that it is looking for a partner to run the Mt. Washington museum. Unfortunately, the Southwest is a fixer-upper. Autry president W. Richard West Jr. told the L.A. Times that the building needs $27 to $41 million in further repairs and upgrades. That limits the scope of potential candidates to partner with the Autry.

Well, maybe USC could be that partner. It’s not necessarily tapped out by the Pacific Asia takeover. A MOCA takeover would have been more expensive by far. USC is in the midst of a campaign to raise $6 billion by 2018, augmenting an endowment that already stands at $3.5 billion. It’s said that over 6000 Trojans, about 16 percent of the student body, are currently pursuing degrees in the arts. Even with Pacific Asia and the on-campus Fisher Museum of Art, USC will remain far behind rival schools museum-wise.

Wait—if the Autry is the lying, cheating horse thief that Mt. Washington homeowners say it is, why would it cede the SWM collection to USC? It wouldn’t, and it doesn’t have to.

Suppose that SWM became a kunsthalle programmed by USC. As I read it, there is plenty of first-rate SWM art to go around. The Autry is balking at the expense of running a second site that management evidently sees as superfluous. Not without reason: At its peak, the SWM’s attendance was an anemic 60,000 a year. The Griffith Park Autry’s attendance is an order of magnitude greater.

The art of indigenous America still hasn’t gotten its due among museum goers. That’s probably because its has rarely been shown as art. Much of the nation’s native American material is displayed in natural history museums or in specialized (ghettoized) museums like the Southwest, the Heard, and the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.

In contrast, the art of below-the-Rio-Grande America is mainstreamed in encyclopedic museums alongside the traditions of Africa, Europe, and Asia. It’s relatively easy to trace the influences of  pre-Columbian art on globalizing modernism. Meso- and South American art is is thus seen and appreciated by larger, more diverse audiences.

A future SWM-USC might present Native American art in the context of contemporary American or global art. It could draw not only on the Southwest Museum collection but on the Fisher collection, the Pacific Asia collection, and the many local collections of American and contemporary art. It could explore what it means to be American in the 21st century.

What’s in it for the Autry? A reinvigorated Southwest Museum would solve the Autry’s #1 ongoing headache. That would be the best of all plausible Hollywood endings.

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