In 2013, Bill Whitaker of CBS This Morning visited George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch, a vast property in Marin County, with a 300-seat theater and a man-made lake. The massive main house, built in the 1980s, looks Victorian, and the ranch has its own functioning fire station — helpful, maybe, to pacify Marin residents who have been fighting Lucas’ expansion plans for a quarter-century.
“Your fingerprints are on every inch of this property,” observed Whitaker.
“Well, the same thing will happen with the museum …,” Lucas said, pivoting the conversation toward his newest project, the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art. At that point, the Star Wars director still thought his museum would land in San Francisco's Presidio Park. He’d gift it to the city, build it for free. But the city didn’t want anything taller than 45 feet in the park. Lucas’ proposed building was over 69 feet tall and “looked like a generic Spanish-themed shopping center,” critic John King told Bloomberg. “It was like Lucas just came in and said, ‘I’ve got this great thing. You should bend the rules […] because I’m going to pay for it, and I’m George Lucas.’”
Now, after three years of negotiations, three design proposals and a weird competition pitting the Bay Area against L.A., Lucas has chosen a home for his $1 billion museum: L.A.’s Exposition Park. Ideally, ground will break this year and doors will open in 2020. When the announcement was made in early January, Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office called it “breathtaking” and “a new jewel” that “will soon bring unrivaled opportunities to be immersed in stories told on canvas and celluloid.” Perhaps the opportunities will indeed be unrivaled — no “narrative art museum” exists elsewhere, because, as we will discuss, narrative art isn’t exactly a real thing. The building, designed by Ma Yansong of the Beijing studio MAD, is breathtaking in a way only retro spaceships can be. Propped up on three thick legs, bright white and fluid in the shape of a figure eight, it’s high modernism meets a space odyssey.
But is this the kind of canvas-and-celluloid marriage we need? Leaders of Los Angeles’ art world have for decades tried to foster patronage and productive collaborations between visual art and film, the idea being that if the biggest creative industry in our city engaged the local art scene with more gusto, then perhaps L.A. art would no longer have such a patronage problem. The Lucas Museum did not respond to requests for comment on its plans for working with other institutions, or the director's choice to open a new museum rather than help existing ones. Given what we know, Lucas’ project doesn’t seem to be much about collaboration or cross-pollination, and might not do much, if anything, to better unite art and film in this city.
Back in 2009, not long after he became LACMA’s director, Michael Govan suspended the museum’s weekend screening program. Attendance had been too low to justify the cost, in Govan’s opinion, but the outcry was swift. Martin Scorsese wrote an open letter; the film community launched an online petition; the museum scheduled a sit-down with filmmakers. Within a few months, the Hollywood Foreign Press and Time Warner had donated $75,000 apiece to keep their art form on high visibility at LACMA.
The museum hadn't planned to suspend its film screenings indefinitely, but this was exactly the kind of support it needed all along. In 2010, LACMA began hosting its annual Art + Film Gala to raise money for both the visual arts and film-related programs. This year, director Kathryn Bigelow and light and space artist Robert Irwin were the honorees. A film that documentarian Lisanne Skyler made about Irwin screened and Bigelow talked about her mentor, conceptual artist Lawrence Weiner. Film met art in a fluid, collaborative way and $3.6 million was raised.
The idea here, an old-fashioned one that sometimes seems new in a city in which a 50-year-old art museum is the oldest, is that people of means pool their resources and expertise to preserve cultural histories and artifacts they care about. Nothing about the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art’s self-presentation suggests overarching concerns with collaboration or shared cultural concerns.
“Lucas has thousands of pieces, enough to rotate his exhibits every six months for the next six years,” CBS reporter Whitaker told his viewers following his visit to Skywalker Ranch. Perhaps he has even more now but, while quite impressive, the idea of one exhibition after another sourced from one man’s treasure chest (“I basically buy what I like,” Lucas has said) seems pretty myopic, certainly not meant to inspire cultural collaboration.
Lucas likes comic books, which he started collecting back when he still wanted to be an illustrator, before he learned he could tell the stories he wanted to tell through movies. He also has a lot of works by Norman Rockwell, the illustrator and painter known for his heart-jerking, all-American scenes. Lucas even owns a few works by Rockwell “about storytelling,” like Shadow Artist (1920), in which a man uses his hands as shadow puppets.
“When you see a Rockwell,” Lucas told Whitaker, “you see something of yourself in there, no matter who you are or where you came from.” Whitaker wondered about the people who find Rockwell’s work schmaltzy or banal, or “so bad it’s good” in the way an unironic movie on the Hallmark Channel can be. “In the end, you either look through the world through cynical eyes or idealistic eyes,” Lucas replied. (There are plenty of arguments to be made for Rockwell, but that cynics can’t appreciate him seems a particularly uninspired one.)
Lucas’ narrative art collection includes illustrations by Beatrix Potter and drawings done for Winnie the Pooh books; paintings of Westward expansion by Thomas Hart Benton; World War II photographs by photojournalist W. Eugene Smith; and set pieces from The Wizard of Oz. In other words, it’s not terribly coherent. The connecting theme seems to be nostalgia. Lucas apparently likes things related to events and pop culture trends: big wars, big blockbusters, long-running comic strips. He also likes Americana and impressionism.
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“What distinguishes Narrative Art from other genres is its ability to narrate a story across diverse cultures, preserving it for future generations,” says the museum’s website, before quoting theorist Roland Barthes and citing the Lascaux Caves and Michelangelo. The explanation inadvertently makes it seem like narrative art can’t really be a “genre” since it includes almost everything. Well, except abstract expressionism. That painterly movement is not narrative: “Although Abstract Expressionism had been favored by critics and art connoisseurs, Narrative Art's popularity with the general public never wavered,” the website explains. So perhaps another driving theme is populism over perceived elitism. Is that why the museum’s collection excludes the kind of narrative art made by, say, video artists Yael Bartana or Peggy Ahwesh, whose work certainly builds a bridge between the world of film and contemporary fine art? Because it isn’t popular enough?
“What is terrific about it as an art museum?” asked L.A. Times critic Christopher Knight, in his recent piece on why the Lucas Museum is a bad idea. “Not much, I dare say.” He noted that “narrative art is a made-up category” and that most of the museum’s collection could fit nicely into the collections of other museums. But his main gripe was this: Lucas’ plan “ignores a powerful art museum infrastructure already existing in L.A., one that desperately needs what Lucas could bring to the table.”
Think of how far his $1 billion could go toward endowing programs in which young filmmakers and illustrators collaborate. What if a gift could make MOCA's screening series with Filmforum free to the public? Or funds could go toward building up the film poster collections at LACMA. But instead of channeling his resources toward institutions already working to collect and carefully historicize the kind of art his institution will own — Americana, historic illustrations, film artifacts — his intends, it seems, to present the public with a sloppily invented spiel about the historic importance of "narrative art."
Perhaps this could be slightly redeemed if the signage and promotional material emphasized that the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art really just centers on what Lucas finds important. This at least will give one accurate angle on the history of Hollywood as a place where egos reign and star power outshines careful thought and craft.