The Lucas Museum of Narrative Art – Third Time’s the Charm?
Some days, it seems you just can’t get a museum built. That seems to be the case for George Lucas in recent years.
As he entered his 70’s, the famed (and much-loathed) director, began to consider his retirement from the world of filmmaking.
Along with selling his company Lucasfilm (as well as it’s big name titles like Star Wars and Indiana Jones) to The Walt Disney Company in 2012, Lucas also had plans for his personal art collection, which contained a number of illustrations, filmmaking materials (not just from Star Wars), and paintings (most notably, a number of them by Norman Rockwell!).
Over the years, Lucas has been known for donating to the arts and education, and had now decided to invest over a billion dollars of his own money, to ‘gift’ his art collection to the public, placed in a museum he’d fund out of his own pockets.
But first, he needed a city.
His first attempt to make his museum a reality, hinged on obtaining a parcel of land near San Francisco’s Presidio, located in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge. However, after 2 years of trying to work with the Presidio’s board, he was unable to secure the area he had hoped for.
When the plans fell through at the Presidio site, a number of other cities came calling. Out of all of them, it was the invitation of Chicago mayor Rahm Emmanuel, that caught George’s eye.
His wife Mellody Hobson hearkened from the city, and Lucas himself had been known to visit there as well. What was being offered with the museum, was definitely something different than the other art-based museums within the supposedly world-class city.
Of the different sites that were shown to Lucas, the one he gravitated towards, was a parcel of land, between the city’s Soldier Field stadium, and McCormick Place East convention center facilities. Currently the site of an overflow parking lot for Chicago Bears football games, architectural renderings by the MAD Architects firm, showed a return to a more natural environment, though many were agog at the unusual ‘naturalistic’ art style of the museum being proposed.
However, the efforts were soon hindered by a non-profit group called Friends of the Parks, who claimed that the deal undermined the city’s Burnham Plan. The plan claimed that the city’s lakefront property was not for sale, and was to remain “open, free, and clear,” for the citizens of the city.
Lucas and the Mayor’s office attempted to come to a compromise with the group, but after 2 years of neither side willing to budge, plans fell through in early May of 2016.
With the Windy City behind him as an option, Lucas returned to the west, where a number of cities once again attempted to gain his favor.
It was in the Summer of of 2016, that Lucas made a change from his usual decision-making process. Instead of singling out one city, he gave two the option of vying for his museum: Los Angeles, and San Francisco.
Both cities were given time to submit proposals, and once Lucas selected a site he deemed worthy, the MAD Architect firm went to work. Instead of just transplanting the Chicago site design to the west coast, the architects worked around the environments, to give each a unique design.
Finally, in the fall of 2016, the proposals and designs were unveiled to the public.
For San Francisco, the location chosen was on a stretch of landfill, known as Treasure Island. The site of a decommissioned naval base, the city had long been looking to revitalize it, for residential and commercial development.
5 years ago, Lucas’ first pitch to have his museum placed in the Bay Area, did not go over well. His request for a bayside spot for his museum, was denied by the Presidio Board, causing him to seek out a new location.
When the Chicago deal started to fall apart a few years later, San Francisco did call upon George, claiming they were willing to welcome him back (though not at the original location he requested).
As he returned to the west coast for ‘attempt #3,’ Lucas kept designer Ma Yansong along for the ride.
The designs Ma came up with for the Treasure Island location, reflects on the more open space that was being considered, compared to the rather confined parcel of land in Chicago.
The organic architecture has a better chance to ‘breathe,’ and ‘opens’ up in a more horizontal fashion. Windows are more abundant than in the Chicago design, allowing more natural light in, and views towards San Francisco, and the Pacific Ocean.
Back when I posted my article about the aftermath of Chicago losing it’s bid for the museum, there was little information as to where the museum might go if Los Angeles was chosen.
Unlike San Francisco with it’s famous Bay Area waterways, Los Angeles is land-locked, leaving many to wonder where Lucas would consider placing his museum.
When word came that Exposition Park was chosen, I was a little surprised…at first.
Located near Lucas’ alma mater (The University of Southern California), the site for the Los Angeles proposal, didn’t boast any bodies of water close by. However, the area seemed oddly reminiscent of the Chicago location Lucas had wanted: within walking distance of a nearby stadium (in this case, the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum), a number of local museums, and…the proposed structure would be built atop two areas that were currently serving as parking lots for the park!
Ma Yansong’s design for this proposed area, seemed to ‘elevate’ the museum experience, compared to his previous designs.
While the last two designs by MAD had taken up considerable ground space, the bulk of his Los Angeles design, made it look like the museum was ‘hovering’ over the area, with several structural ‘bases’to support it. Landscaping and greenery were also included among the upper tiers, giving the structure a melding sleek curves, intermingled with the organic.
Unlike Chicago’s very public land ‘battle,’ the two cities where Lucas was considering to put his museum this time, brought forth proposals and land selection choices, with minimal public outcry. Both cities seemed to welcome George Lucas and Melody Hobbson with open arms, eager to make the third time the charm, wherever he might consider.
Checking social media, I scanned tweets and some other postings, but found very little online dissent, like the kind that exploded out of Chicago (thanks to Friends of the Parks painting Lucas as an out-of-control billionaire, looking to cheat the good citizens of the city out of lakefront property).
The only dissent I saw, was from the head of Salesforce in San Francisco. The head of the company, felt that for being generous with his ‘gift,’ Lucas should also channel some funds into the city’s infrastructure as well, if they were to accept his museum.
Originally, word was that around the beginning of 2017, there would be a decision by the museum’ s board, on the chosen location.
Early word pegged a January 6th announcement, but the day came-and-went, and news out of California, was that the announcements would be postponed until the end of the month.
However, on January 10th, 2017, around 3pm Pacific Standard Time, an official press release appeared on the museum’s Facebook page.
A decision had been made, and the lucky city was: Los Angeles!
I will admit, when the announcement came, I was surprised!
This decision seemed counter from the Presidio and Chicago lakefront locations: a landlocked space in the heart of Los Angeles, with what seemed the most minimal of natural space. Even the Chicago Tribune’s architecture critic Blair Kamin took a jab at the museum’s placement in a snide tweet (then again, almost all of his tweets had been condescending towards the museum), wondering why Lucas did not choose the water view like some assumed.
On further observation, I soon began to consider why George had chosen Los Angeles’ Exposition Park.
Going back over the location on Treasure Island in San Francisco, I could definitely see it’s positives. The museum would be allowed to have a much larger ‘footprint’ on the land being provided. Plus, San Francisco sees Lucas as one of it’s more famous citizens, and, it’s location across from San Francisco’s famous Embarcadero, seemed a decent setting. One could imagine looking across the waters, and seeing the structure’s stark-white exterior rising up from the surroundings, also possibly lit up as evening set in over the Bay Area.
Unfortunately, while the location would have been picturesque, I believe the decision to not build on Treasure Island, came down to two factors.
The first factor, is access.
Currently, the only way to access Treasure Island, is by using Interstate 80, heading east out of San Francisco. The access route onto the island, leads one through the smaller Yerba Buena Island that connects to the landfill.
The city’s plans to turn the island area into a new place for development, could mean that new construction projects would be lined up in the future. However, with current infrastructure changes happening on I-80, it could have been seen by Lucas as a possibly hindrance regarding ‘easy access’ to the location.
There had been some thoughts, that much like the ferries to Alcatraz Island, a ferry service could also be utilized to transport people back and forth, beetween the Embarcadero, and Treasure Island. There was talk that the amount of money to help construct a service, would have been folded into the museum’s plans. It is possible, that Lucas may have drawn the line on just how far he was willing to stretch his ‘gift.’
The second factor, is isolation.
Both the Presidio and Chicago locations, had a setup that seemed to be picturesque to Lucas: a location close to easy access for families and tourists, while also near the shores of a major body of water, sandwiching his museum between the natural elements on one side, and man-made elements on the other.
When it came to his choices for the third go-round, he had to make some tough decisions.
San Francisco would give him a chance to have a picturesque view near water, but he would be isolated, ‘adrift’ on an island, with limited access for visitors.
Los Angeles would give him the yang to San Francisco’s yin. While it would be land-locked, the location in Exposition Park, would mirror his thoughts to keep his museum close to other tourist spots, and like the Chicago location, allowed easy access to other museums that families and tourists could also visit.
I like to imagine that Lucas’ wife Mellody had a hand in steering him towards this decision. Word was she was sad when her hometown of Chicago failed to secure the museum, and I could imagine her reminding George, that while he might favor picturesque, his museum was also seen as a learning center. Families in large cities may like to go to museums, but there would be considerable effort to get to the museum, if it was on Treasure Island.
Los Angeles is known for not being easy to get around in, but unlike Treasure Island, there are also other ways to get to Exposition Park. Several bus routes border it, and the city has a Metro Rail line, that services both USC, and the park.
Also like Chicago, it’s museum campus contains three museums currently: The California African-American Museum, The California Science Center, and The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.
Most notable, is the park’s Science Center, which made headlines in the last few years, when NASA allowed the Space Shuttle Endeavor, to be transported to the facility, as it’s final home.
The Center is also planning a major expansion, that would place the shuttle vertically, with it’s booster rockets and external tank attached, making it the only space shuttle to be displayed in this configuration, in the world.
From my perspective, it looks like smooth sailing from here on out for the Lucas Museum of Narrative Arts. In the time since the announcement, I haven’t heard word of any preservation groups in Los Angeles, raising a ruckus like the Friends of the Parks group in Chicago did.
The most dissent I read, was mainly from those wondering if Lucas was so wealthy, why didn’t he use some of his money for other purposes? But then again, it seemed no different than articles in Chicago that claimed Lucas trying to build his museum here, was a waste of time and money.
As it stands now, word is that the project will probably take 5 years, with groundbreaking sometime this year, and an estimated completion date, sometime in the year 2022.
Hopefully, Lucas’ struggles have come to an end, and he can get to work overseeing the construction of one of his final projects, within our galaxy.