After 6+ years, The George Lucas Museum of Narrative Art finally finds a home in Southern California, but it’s so much more than just Star Wars memorabilia.
The City of Los Angeles doesn’t always get what it wants, but it certainly tries hard for things that it feels will benefit the community. Sometimes it’s the Olympics, sometimes it’s the NFL, and occasionally it’s something just a little more nerdy.
Case in point:
In 2005, I was contacted as an “uber Star Wars fan” by the City to help sway Lucasfilm’s decision to bring Celebration IV, the grand-slam biennial Star Wars convention, from Indianapolis to LA in May of 2007. Through the combined efforts of the Visitor’s Bureau, City Council and local Star Wars fan groups, and even though the city’s “LA Live” downtown hotel and entertainment venue and Metrorail train system wouldn’t be ready for a few years, LFL took a leap of faith and came out to visit. The City cut them a deep deal on the downtown Convention Center rental, I wrote a proclamation declaring May 25th – opening day of the convention and the 30th Anniversary of the release of Episode IV – “Star Wars Day” in the city, and LFL settled in to host their most successful Celebration thus far. The City was then able to use Celebration as a badge of honor, luring shows like WizardWorld, WonderCon, Stan Lee’s Kamakaze and other large-scale events into downtown to make the convention center more of a gathering place and less a spot merely for trade shows; large-scale cons finally became a staple of LA fandom’s calendar. A big win for everyone, especially sci-fi fans, who became a little more invested in the city that took a chance on them.
So no one should be particularly surprised that LA has, for a few years now, felt pretty strongly about bringing The George Lucas Museum of Narrative Art to its bosom.
There’s certainly no shortage of museums in the city; there are 100 in this incomplete list alone. But there was something magical about the newly announced Lucas proposal. George was, after all, the modern Walt Disney, right? And a brand new showcase covering 150 years of the little-seen category of populist art? How could this be a bad thing for any city? He was even going to foot the bill, all costs covered out of his own deep pockets.
But it wasn’t the slam dunk you’d think it would be. Like Debbie Reynolds (who preserved costumes and items from the golden age of Hollywood) and Forrest J Ackerman (who hoarded horror and sci-fi history) before him, Lucas discovered that finding a place to share your passion and collection with the world was pretty hard. In the case of Reynolds and Ackerman, their collections were broken up and sold after years – decades! – of failing to find backers, hosts and locations.
There was no risk of that with George’s ample bank account, but since November of 2010, Lucas’ grand collection has been searching to land in cities near his own hometowns. First San Francisco (to replace a sporting goods store in Crissy Field in the Presidio, near the Lucasfilm/ILM offices and Walt Disney Family Museum) and then his wife Mellody Hobson’s turf of Chicago (replacing the McCormick Place East convention center building near Museum Campus and Soldier Field) only to find roadblocks at every turn. While the mayors of each city were overwhelmingly enthusiastic, and despite glowing recommendations from some of the biggest names in Chicago, San Francisco and the museum/preservation crowd (plus a huge letter, email and social media campaign from legions of Star Wars and art fans around the United States) city planners, open-spaces activists and citizen’s groups fought hard to keep the museum from their backyard.
So, after regrouping with a name and focus change from the broad and somewhat generic “Lucas Cultural Art Museum” to the more targeted “George Lucas Museum of Narrative Art”, Lucas started over. Here in LA, newly-elected mayor Eric Garcetti was so passionate about luring the collection of around 40,000 pieces to his city that he started a #WhyLucasinLA Twitter hashtag and media campaign even though LA wasn’t really in the running. But it worked, and the Lucas Museum began giving it serious consideration, especially after Chicago made it so difficult to get footing.
And then San Francisco decided they wanted it after all. The city offered the exotic-sounding Treasure Island; a man-made island built in 1936 for the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition, it’s a Naval training and Coast Guard station, and has been declared a California Historical Landmark. Located midway across the bay from San Francisco’s fabled Embarcadero, it has some limited accessibility by Oakland Bay Bridge, and the city suggested ferries as a means to get museum visitors to the site. And, for the price of $23 million, George would actually own the island.
Los Angeles countered with an offer of a $20-a-year lease on a seven-acre section of Exposition Park just west of the Memorial Coliseum and part of the cultural campus encompassing the California Science Center, Natural History Museum of LA County, the California African American Museum and more. It’s just to the south of George’s alma mater USC, where he studied and made experimental films before embarking on his career of mythmaking.
While it seemed a no-brainer to most of us here in LA, there was a lot of discussion before the decision to bring it here to the City of Angels. While announced as the final location by both Lucas and Garcetti, not all details have been set in stone; planning has gone further than at any other location, and the plans for the space usage of the building -which will be replacing two parking lots by moving them underground- are relieving objectors by actually bringing more green space back to the park.
The decidedly futuristic building is a far cry from the original Beaux-Arts design of the Presideo museum; it looks a bit like a landed Naboo Royal Starship (or to my eye, even Star Trek‘s USS Voyager). It will hardly be LA’s weirdest modern venue, competing with the steel-skinned Walt Disney Concert Hall and recently-renovated Petersen Auto Museum, which looks like it’s wearing the same (but bloodied) metal skin after it was removed from the Disney.
And the collection! 40 years of accumulating 40,000 art- and film-related pieces have made for an eclectic mix, and those that rarely get displayed outside of Lucas’ own properties will finally be enjoyed by the public. Inevitably, some Star Wars and Indiana Jones items will creep in, but it isn’t the focus or point of the museum. Artists like NC Wyeth, Maxfield Parrish, Joseph Leyendecker, Norman Rockwell, Keith Haring, Frida Kahlo all have works represented, nearly 150 in the case of Rockwell. Children’s illustrators such as Beatrix Potter, John Tenniel and EH Shepard have sketches or paintings from their memorable stories. Pop artists including Carl Barks, Alison Bechdel, R.Crumb, Frank Frazetta, Winsor Mckay, Mobius, Charles Schulz and Frank Kelly Freas. Thousands of domestic and international film posters from the golden age of cinema. Digital art, comics, animation cels, fashion, costumes and designs, memorabilia and more. Diverse to be sure, but covering all the bases encompassed by “populist art” isn’t easy.
Some purists might consider this to be “low” art, disposable pop culture that rarely deserves a second glance. The folks at the Lucas Museum feel the opposite; that this is the art that needs to be shown, those images and items of the past few generations that make up their childhood and history. Just as Star Wars has become a new mythology for a recent age, the seed collection of the Museum speaks to our shared cultural identity even if these aren’t considered lasting works in the realm of the Great Masters.
I, for one, can’t wait until it opens; the projected date is May the 4th, 2021. Pretty “Star Wars” for a “non-Star Wars” museum, and it should be completed and it’s collection all settled in just in time for the next big thing Los Angeles is bidding on- the 2024 Summer Olympics.
What do you think? Should “pop culture” be considered “low art?” Are you excited for the museum? Is it worth a trip to LA to see it? Let us know your opinions below.
Some stats on the planned museum:
- Site: N/W corner of Exposition Park, Los Angeles (Currently Parking Lots 2 & 3)
- Parking: Underground parking to accommodate approximately 1800 vehicles
- Added green space: Approximately 6–7 acres
- Interior spaces: Approximately 265,000–275,000 Net SqFt
- Galleries: Approximately 90,000–100,000 SqFt
(Approximations based on conceptual plans and estimates, subject to change)
Ma Yansong, MAD Architects
The original 30-page proposal with samples of the collection for the 2013 Presidio bid: https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/797575-lucas-cultural-arts-museum.html