There are a number of reasons why movie directors do not generally go around establishing museums. It is not only because most of them do not own enough artworks to put into them or have enough money to start new careers as philanthropists. If you direct movies for a living, you are accustomed to controlling just about everything that comes across your field of vision. But if you decide to build a museum, you can control very little, as George Lucas—who has plenty of art, and plenty of money—has discovered over the past several years. His quest to donate more than a billion dollars worth of art and architecture in the form of a brand-new public museum containing the bulk of his collection of paintings, drawings, and film memorabilia was turned down in San Francisco, driven away by opponents in Chicago, proposed again for a different location in San Francisco, and finally, last year, approved for a site in Los Angeles.
The project, which is now officially named the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art but, given its history, might just as well be called the Flying Dutchman, will take the form of a dramatic, swooping, cloud-like structure designed by the Chinese architect Ma Yansong, in Exposition Park, adjacent to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
What Lucas is now building—ground was broken on March 14, and there is already an excavation so large that it looks like a massive earthwork if you view it from an airliner approaching Los Angeles International Airport—could not be more different from where he started out. The museums original incarnation, proposed for waterfront land within the Presidio national park, with views of the Golden Gate Bridge, was a grandiose, heavy-handed Beaux-Arts building that Lucas, who prides himself on his love of both art and architecture, insisted was the only thing appropriate for that site. That first version was called the Lucas Cultural Arts Museum, a title as awkward semantically as the building was architecturally. Its unveiling, in 2013, marked the beginning of a multi-year saga that would come to have nearly as many dramatic clashes as youll encounter in Lucass Star Wars, and almost none of the amiability of his American Graffiti.
No one back then had the slightest idea that the proposed museum would provoke a major backlash in not one but two American cities, or that it would finally come to rest in Los Angeles, a location that carries no small degree of irony, since it is a city that Lucas built much of his identity as a filmmaker on spurning. Although he studied film at the University of Southern California and has been a major supporter of its film school, he has lived and worked in Northern California for most of his life, and for years he made something of a fetish of avoiding Los Angeles as much as possible. Although Lucas bought a $33.9 million estate in Bel Air last year, which will allow him to be close to the museum as it rises, he still spends most of his time either in Marin County, north of San Francisco, or in Chicago, where his wife, Mellody Hobson, a Chicago native who is the president of a financial firm, Ariel Investments, is based. Chicago, of course, would become the second city to find itself the recipient of what Lucas felt to be his unrequited love.
Lucass odyssey began long before Chicago or San Francisco, however, and really goes back several decades to when he began to make money and to collect art. As with many directors, his visual sensibility extended far beyond the camera. What was curious about Lucas was that his interest in art had relatively little to do with the avant-garde—unlike, say, Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger, and Albert Lewin, all directors who collected modern art. Still, Lucas was hardly a reactionary in his tastes. He responded to a certain boldness, which is why he loved Frank Lloyd Wright. He liked both blunt California Mission-style design and Victorian extravagance, and he found that he could be drawn to plenty of new art as long as it was emotionally engaging and told some sort of story. What bothered him about abstraction wasnt that it didnt look attractive but that he felt it didnt tell a comprehensible narrative.
Over the years, Lucas acquired significant holdings in Norman Rockwell, Thomas Hart Benton, Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden, and Maxfield Parrish, among other figurative artists, as well as vast numbers of editorial cartoons, early examples of comic strips, and posters and other forms of graphic art. Before long he had several thousand pieces—he now owns roughly 15,000 separate artworks in addition to archival material from his films. He started thinking about the connections among art and illustration and filmmaking, and wanted to make something of it all. He also became a proselytizer for the notion that the kind of work he favored had been overlooked by the art establishment.
“Narrative art is an illegitimate child of art—you wont see it in any major museum,” Lucas said to me when we talked last summer at the high-rise condominium that he, Hobson, and their young daughter share on Chicagos Gold Coast. That isnt entirely true, of course—narrative art, which is commonly defined as the use of image to tell a story, and can include everything from prehistoric cave paintings to carvings, tapestries, and murals, as well as commercial art, editorial and political cartooning, comics, poster art, and figurative art, is found in the collections of most comprehensive museums. By most measures you could describe a great post-Impressionist painting like Seurats A Sunday on La Grande Jatte in the Art Institute of Chicago, just a few blocks down Michigan Avenue from where we were meeting, as a form of narrative art. Italian frescoes and the stained-glass windows in Gothic churches are narrative art, too; so is much photography.
Lucas likes to think of himself as an outsider in the world of art, much as he positions himself as an outsider in the movie industry, a director who has always gone his own way. The genesis of his museum, he said, sitting beside Hobson on a sofa beneath a Fernand Léger painting, came out of his desire “to put a stake in the ground for popular art, for San Francisco, and for anthropology. The original idea was that it would tell you the history of art from cave paintings to digital art.” At the same time, Lucas felt, it could be a record of Northern Californias contributions to filmmaking, which included not only his own company, Lucasfilm, but more recent digital innovators such as Pixar, the company once owned by Steve Jobs.
Lucas had already built an office building in 2005 for Lucasfilm (he sold the company in 2012 to Disney for just over $4 billion) on the grounds of the Presidio, a former army base that had been transformed into a national park and governed by the Presidio Trust, an organization charged with the often conflicting goals of protecting the parks landscape and encouraging economic development. Given Lucass history at the Presidio and with San Francisco, it seemed natural to propose building his museum there—preferably on Crissy Field, a portion of the park along the waterfront.
“I wanted to do something modern. I wanted an iconic building like the Sydney Opera House, but they said, You absolutely wont put a modern building there, ” Lucas told me. He later explained to Charlie Rose that his intention had been to invite five prominent modern architects to produce designs and then select the one he liked best. Instead, he went to the Urban Design Group, a large, Dallas-based firm with which he had worked before, and asked it to produce a traditional museum design in the manner of Bernard Maybecks Palace of Fine Arts, a Beaux-Arts landmark on the edge of the Presidio.
And that is when things began to go south. The Urban Design Group is a commercial firm whose expertise was neither designing museums nor working in traditional architectural styles, and its scheme, as the San Francisco Chronicle critic John King wrote, “looked like a generic Spanish-themed shopping center.” It was also 69 feet high, and design guidelines set by the Presidio Trust required that buildings be no higher than 45 feet, in order to preserve views toward the Golden Gate Bridge. The trust, not wanting to turn over public land to Lucas without giving others a chance to come up with alternative proposals, put out a general call for cultural projects and received 16 submissions, all of them no higher than 45 feet. Unwilling to compromise on the design, Lucas embarked on a public-relations campaign for his museum and his vision, enlisting Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, California governor Jerry Brown, and Senator Dianne Feinstein, among others, to endorse his proposal. (Disclosure: I was asked to consult with Lucass organization to try to find ways to improve the buildings design, but nothing came of it.)
The campaign failed to change the opinion of some San Franciscans that the central issue was not whether to accept a gift to the community but whether to allow a powerful figure to have his way with a cherished piece of local land. A few years earlier, opponents had defeated a plan by Don and Doris Fisher, the founders of the Gap, to build a museum for their modern-art collection elsewhere in the Presidio, and some of Lucass initial missteps gave them plenty of ammunition for another fight. He at first refused to provide many details about his collection or about the curatorial plans for the museum, which encouraged the view that the project was a rich mans indulgence, a few sentimental paintings dressing up a showcase for Star Wars memorabilia. Lucas seemed to treat the whole approval process with a sense of disdain verging on entitlement, made manifest in an interview he gave in September 2013 to Deborah Solomon of The New York Times, in which he complained that the Presidio Trust “made us jump through hoops to explain why a museum was worth having.” He concluded: “They hate us.”
Lucas and the Presidio Trust also differed on the matter of what constituted appropriate architecture for the Presidio. The trust made no secret of its dislike for the stage-set nature of Lucass building, and said that something more contemporary would be preferable; Lucas said that he had been told the opposite at the outset, and that he had ordered up a Beaux-Arts building for that reason. Still, when it turned out that almost everyone disliked the building, Lucas dug in and defended it vigorously, insisting that the unpopular architecture of his museum was not the problem.
And then, with startling speed, he changed his mind completely, and abandoned both San Francisco and the whole idea of traditional architecture. It is hard not to feel that much of this was because of Hobson. A 49-year-old Princeton graduate who has been the president of Ariel, one of the largest African-American-owned money-management firms in the country, she appears regularly for CBS News as a contributor on financial issues, last year became the first African-American woman to head the Economic Club of Chicago, and in June was named vice-chairman of the board of Starbucks. After she married Lucas, at his Skywalker Ranch in June 2013, she began to take a bigger role in the decision-making about her husbands dream. She recounted to me a conversation with Lucas about the Beaux-Arts building: “I said, Is this what the guy who did Star Wars should build?”
“Mellody said, If you cant have it in your hometown, what about mine?” Lucas recalled. She had close ties to Rahm Emanuel, the mayor of Chicago, who had already let it be known that he would be more than happy to give the Lucas Museum a home, and promised Lucas and Hobson that Chicago would not subject them to the nit-picking demands of San Francisco. Emanuel organized a site-selection committee to review locations, and in June 2014 he offered Lucas a 17-acre parcel alongside Lake Michigan occupied by parking lots for the Chicago Bears Soldier Field. Lucas liked it, and the mayor announced with excitement that “Chicago, the most American of American cities,” was the new location for the Lucas Museum. Lucas and Hobson then ditched the Urban Design Group and its traditional building and this time managed to stage the competition Lucas said he had wanted in the first place. In Chicago, a city with a great heritage of modernist architecture, all talk of traditional design disappeared. Lucas and Hobson invited several of the worlds leading architects, including Zaha Hadid as well as Shohei Shigematsu, of Rem Koolhaass OMA, to submit proposals for what would now be a determinedly avant-garde building. This time, Lucas would have his Sydney Opera House.
Full ScreenPhotos:Twenty Pieces from George Lucass Art Collection
“I wanted to deal with a great artist,” Lucas said. “It was very exciting for me to do something from scratch.”
But when the architects came to a conference room in Hobsons Chicago office to present their ideas, only one of them really excited Lucas and Hobson. It was a design that looked like a computer-generated curving mountain, and it was the work of Ma Yansong, a 38-year-old architect who had studied at Yale and worked for Zaha Hadid before he went home to China to open his own office in Beijing.
“There was a gasp—we knew that was the building,” Hobson said. “We loved it—it was stunning.”
“We said we wanted a work of art, no constraints, and this was the only one that was iconic,” Lucas said.
Iconic it may have been, but it would not turn out to be any easier for Lucas to sell in Chicago than his Beaux-Arts design had been in San Francisco. Blair Kamin, the Chicago Tribune architecture critic, called it a “cartoonish mountain of a building that would be glaringly out of place amid the horizontal sweep of Chicagos lakefront…. Overly abstract and under-detailed, it looks, from some angles, like a giant lump.”
The biggest problem, however, wasnt the architecture, which Ma had already begun to refine and improve. It was the site itself. A small preservation organization named Friends of the Parks decided to object to the project on the grounds that the lakefront site was “public trust” land and the city had no legal right to offer it to Lucas. The group filed a federal lawsuit to block the transfer. It was clear that Emanuel couldnt deliver the smooth approval process he had expected, and in June 2016, after rejecting some alternative sites the city offered, Lucas threw in the towel for the second time.
“Our issue was time,” Hobson said. “Eventually we would have won, but George said, Im 72 and I want to see this building built. We loved that building.”
Lucas and Hobson felt as if they had been spurned by both of their hometowns. Though the project was never officially canceled by either city, it had certainly become a lightning rod. In San Francisco, an opposition group even prepared an advertisement that showed Darth Vader looming over the Golden Gate Bridge. It was never used.
Yet Lucas and Hobson were actually more flexible and willing to learn than many of their critics supposed. To take one example, Lucas had abruptly reversed himself about the Beaux-Arts architecture that he had been so insistent on in San Francisco. He and Hobson also began to think more deeply about the nature of the museum itself, which had become a victim of caricature.
Probably the most important thing Lucas did when he was trying to get the museum built in Chicago was to hire Don Bacigalupi, an experienced museum director who had helped Alice Walton, the Walmart heiress, put together her collection of American art and had overseen the construction and opening in 2011 of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Waltons museum in Bentonville, Arkansas, designed by Moshe Safdie. Before that, Bacigalupi had run the Toledo Museum of Art and built the Glass Pavilion—an addition there by the Japanese architectural firm SANAA, the first American project by a young firm that would later win the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize. Bacigalupi was familiar both with constructing architecturally ambitious museums and with the challenge of developing serious collections with billionaires whose judgment the art world viewed with skepticism. He brought a new level of professionalism, not to mention credibility, to the process of turning Lucass sprawling, diverse collection into a functioning institution.
The totality of this modern container holding art of the past surely embodies Lucass worldview.
Bacigalupi had no sooner relocated from Arkansas to Chicago than the Chicago plan began to unravel. But he continued to acquire works on Lucass behalf. And then, in a masterstroke of public relations, he gave a long interview about the collection to Charles Desmarais, a former museum director who had become the art critic of the San Francisco Chronicle, inviting Desmarais to a guesthouse on an estate Lucas owns in San Anselmo, in Marin County, about 15 miles from Skywalker Ranch. There he spread out 55 drawings and paintings brought from the various storehouses where Lucass collection is kept, along with eight notebooks full of photographic reproductions of more than 700 other works.
Desmarais, the first journalist to be allowed a glimpse of Lucass actual holdings, was dazzled. This was no Star Wars museum, he wrote in a long article in the Chronicle. “In fact, it may just be the core of a great museum.” He described the works he had seen, which ranged from well-known Norman Rockwell paintings to original illustrations from Alices Adventures in Wonderland and Babar, as well as drawings by Beatrix Potter and Jacob Lawrence, and works by Mayfield Parrish. All of it could come together to make a serious museum, Desmarais wrote, and he argued for trying again in San Francisco.
The article was published in August 2016, and by then Lucas was in active discussions with both San Francisco mayor Ed Lee and Eric Garcetti, the mayor of Los Angeles. After the debacle of the Presidio, he no longer wanted to present himself as a supplicant; he was ready to reveal what treasures he had, and see how much either city was prepared to offer him to get them. By the fall of 2016, Lucass plan had turned into a kind of bake-off between Californias two most prominent cities. He wasnt looking for cash, or tax benefits, or any of the perks cities dangle in the hope of getting companies to relocate. He wanted an assurance that the route ahead would be smooth, and an understanding of how the museum would fit into the larger cultural community of its city.
Lucas and Hobson felt that Ma Yansong had become so integral to the project that they asked him to design it yet again, twice, for the two sites now under consideration: Treasure Island, in San Francisco Bay, which replaced the Presidio, and Exposition Park, in Los Angeles, just a few blocks from the U.S.C. campus where Lucas had once studied. Its film school is housed in a complex Lucas underwrote with a $175 million gift, and whose Mediterranean-Revival architecture he had requested. According to Elizabeth Daley, the school dean, “he picked out every piece of stone, every carpet. Wed bring samples up to the ranch, and hed say, Is this stone maybe a little too red? ”
“We said, Dont try to fit the Chicago building into other sites—theyre too different,” Hobson said. Ma complied, making him perhaps the only architect who has ever produced three different designs for the same museum for three different cities. The volcanic mountain of Chicago disappeared, replaced by flowing shapes that could have been the lava that spewed forth from that building. For both San Francisco and Los Angeles, the form became longer and more horizontal. Ma described the final version for Los Angeles to me as “feeling like an organic cloud floating above the park—it feels like the building can float away.”
The structure touches the ground at a couple of entry points, but most of it is elevated and bridges over a road. If it has any architectural ancestry, it may be the sprawling Marin County Civic Center, a late project by Frank Lloyd Wright, George Lucass hero, not far from Lucass home and ranch; 56 years after completion, the Wright building still has a seductively futuristic air. It is hard to see at this early stage how well Mas building will divide into usable art galleries that will show off Lucass collection to its best advantage, but it is clear that it will have the same sense of forever looking like a futuristic vision.
Lucas was believed to favor the Treasure Island site, if only because it would be a vindication in his hometown after the collapse of the Presidio scheme. “But we said we will make an unemotional decision—we will put it where it makes the most sense,” Hobson told me. “I had my heartbreak in Chicago. George had his in San Francisco.” By the fall of 2015, Lucas and Hobson not only had brought in Don Bacigalupi but had also nudged the museum a bit closer to self-governance by establishing a board that included Arne Duncan, secretary of education in the Obama administration, John Lasseter, C.C.O. of Pixar and Disney Animation, and John McCarter Jr., the chair of the Smithsonian board of regents, as well as themselves. Officially, at least, the board would make the choice about where the museum would go. “I want this decided on the merits,” Lucas said he told the group.
And then, Lucas told me, he realized something that would ultimately make all the difference. When the Chicago plan fell apart, Hobson issued a public statement expressing particular regret that the citys “young black and brown children will be denied the chance to benefit from what this museum will offer.” Lucas was increasingly coming to think of the museum as an educational institution that would make art more accessible to children who grew up with little exposure to it. “We saw that in Los Angeles there would be a hundred schools in a five-mile radius of the museum, and at Treasure Island there would be one,” he said. “I said that the building on Treasure Island is a vanity project, and the one in Los Angeles will serve thousands of children.” Bacigalupi is trying to get started on that part of the mission already. This summer, he began an educational program for teenagers called Lucas Museum Summer Studio, and invited one of the nations most prominent comic artists, Shawn Martinbrough, to headline the student workshop.
When he was fighting the battle of the Presidio, Lucas was not thinking about schoolchildren, at least not as a priority. His inclination to position the museum in those terms was a further sign that Mellody Hobson was having an increasing impact on her husbands thinking. So, probably, was Bacigalupi, who has spent his career trying to broaden the appeal of museums without dumbing them down. He helped Alice Walton bring some of the greatest art in the United States to Arkansas, and he was excited, he said, by Lucas and Hobsons desire “to build a museum that breaks down barriers that separate people from art. We are interested in art and the very human impulse to tell stories visually.”
Bacigalupis real work is only beginning. He does not have to spend his time the way most museum directors do, raising money, but he does have to figure out exactly how the museum is going to make serious people take popular art seriously, which is no small task. He will need to navigate between a founder who genuinely loves art but resents much of the art world and a community of art collectors, historians, critics, and museum directors who question the value of much of what Lucas has assembled, but whose approval is necessary if the museum is going to be seen as legitimate. Probably the most significant element of the museums groundbreaking ceremony in March was not Mayor Eric Garcettis praise of Lucas and Hobson but the decision to decorate the reception tent next to the site with reproductions of art from the museums collection—as if the Lucas Museum still feels a need to remind people that it collects real paintings and drawings. This spring, the museum revealed that it was the secret purchaser of one of Norman Rockwells most famous works, a painting from 1950 entitled Shuffletons Barbershop, from the Berkshire Museum, in western Massachusetts, which was selling the Rockwell and several dozen other works in an attempt to balance its budget. The Lucas Museum will lend the painting to the Norman Rockwell Museum, in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, until 2020, and will display it in Los Angeles after the new building opens.
Ma Yansongs enormous flying saucer of a building will undoubtedly be an attraction in itself, not to mention a noteworthy addition to Los Angeless inventory of significant new architecture. But it remains to be seen how suitable it will be as display space, and its futuristic flamboyance, paradoxically, looks as if it were designed more to evoke Star Wars than to contain the 19th-century political art and the 20th-century realist art that have become the core of Lucass collection. Then again, the totality of this modern container holding art of the past surely embodies Lucass worldview, which is at once radical and conservative, determined to look back and push forward at the same time.
In the end, the collection will need to speak for itself, which is why, after we had talked in Los Angeles and visited the site where the museum is about to be built, Bacigalupi suggested that I visit Lucass place in San Anselmo, where he arranged for a similar show-and-tell to the one he had put on for Charles Desmarais. He flew up from Los Angeles to meet me, and we walked across a broad lawn in front of the large manor house that Lucas and Hobson occupy to a guesthouse designed in Arts and Crafts style and filled with Stickley furniture. Inside, several dozen works of art were placed on tables, chairs, kitchen counters, and easel stands, filling almost every inch of the cottage. It had a crazy-quilt informality to it—there, stuck wherever they would fit, were works by Rockwell and Thomas Hart Benton (the museum had just acquired three panels from a 1924–27 mural); Jacob Lawrences Harlem Street Scene, from 1942; Romare Beardens “Black Odysseus” series; and pieces by Maxfield Parrish and Kerry James Marshall. There were also some poignant and profound photographs by Gordon Parks, original drawings by R. Crumb, and several pieces by artists I didnt know at all, such as Nemanja Nikolic, a young Serb whose work comments on classic film-noir scenes; a political cartoon from 1936 by J. C. Leyendecker, lambasting Republicans and Democrats; and an extraordinary set of science-fiction illustrations for War of the Worlds by Henrique Alvim Correa, a brilliant Brazilian illustrator who worked around the turn of the last century.
It was a stunning array, and only the tip of a very unusual iceberg. If there was a through line to the pieces, a common theme, it was not just that they represented narrative art but that they all seemed to exist at a point of intersection between emotional intensity and great technical skill—the very qualities that mark great cinema. And like the best films, what I saw in San Anselmo was, by and large, too sophisticated and deftly composed to be dismissed as sentimental; they were the kinds of pieces that showed a serious collectors eye.
“Why I have 15,000 works of art is because I cant let go of them,” Lucas said to me in Chicago. “Thats how I got into the museum business: a magical window into something youve never seen before. The basic issue always is: How do you tell a story?”
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