It’s not surprising that one of our era’s most celebrated storytellers — George Lucas, the creator of the Star Wars movies — would want to create a museum dedicated to the art of visual storytelling. Collaborating with the Chinese architect Ma Yansong, Lucas has proposed building a sleek, futuristic structure to be known as the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art that will house his extensive collection of paintings and objects.
But where should he put it?
For several years, Lucas has pitched his dream project to different cities — first to San Francisco, which rebuffed his plan to build it across from the Crissy Field marsh in the Presidio, and then to Chicago, where preservationists sued to prevent him from building on the lakefront. Thwarted by the lawsuit, he nixed Chicago as a site.
Now, he and his wife, businesswoman Mellody Hobson, are considering two other possible locations — Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay and Exposition Park in Los Angeles. We can make that choice easy for them: They should pick Los Angeles.
For the city and the county, this seems like an extraordinary offer. Lucas and his wife have said they will pay for all the construction, the ongoing operation of the museum and additions to the collection. That puts the price tag at over $1 billion — and would leave the museum with an endowment of at least $400 million. The land on which the museum would sit in Exposition Park — near the science museum, the natural history museum, the African American museum and within walking distance of the University of Southern California — is owned by the state and would be leased to the museum at a nominal $20 a year. L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office says that figure is so low because the museum would pick up the costly expenses of maintenance, operation and security.
This would not be, as some have scoffed, a repository for Star Wars memorabilia. It would be neither a conventional museum nor a theme park. It would be a museum dedicated to narrative art — defined as visual art that tells a story through imagery. The museum, which is expected to be 275,000 square feet, would display works by Norman Rockwell (of which Lucas is one of the foremost collectors) N.C. Wyeth, Jacob Lawrence and R. Crumb, among others. There would be comic art, illustrations and photography as well as movie story boards, props, sets, costumes and other elements that go into making films.
The word “populist” has taken on a dark connotation politically these days. But the Lucas museum vows unapologetically to embrace popular art and break down “the artificial divisions between ‘high’ art and ‘popular’ art.”
Exposition Park, already a cultural nexus of institutions dedicated to history, art, science, education and sports, seems like an ideal place for such a museum. It would sit on a strip of land on Vermont Avenue, replacing a pair of parking lots. In a sort of reverse Joni Mitchell scenario, the parking lots would be torn down and something better would go up. (The museum would include an underground parking structure that would fit more cars than the lots did.)
The museum project already has the enthusiastic support of Garcetti, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors and the directors of the museums that would be its neighbors. Michael Govan, the director of Los Angeles County Museum of Art, who is also a supporter, notes that museums are more complementary than they are competitive and that in a big city, more is better. That’s especially true if the museum is all paid for.
There’s still plenty more to learn about this project; no formal public proposal has been made. But Lucas and Hobson should make Los Angeles their top choice because here the museum would be set in a park that is already a vibrant cultural destination, easily accessible by rail or car to visitors, USC students and schoolchildren alike. Enthusiastic community and political support would ease the process of getting the project built. And Los Angeles is an extraordinarily diverse city whose residents would benefit from a fun, engaging and smart new museum (which is expected to draw in curious and impressionable first-time museum-goers).
We strongly hope that they are lured by Los Angeles, which, in turn, seems likely to embrace their ambitious project.