As one of the world’s most successful filmmakers and boasting a net worth of more than five billion dollars, George Lucas enjoys a rare kind of creative freedom. If he is struck by a fancy, he can see it through without real impediment. But when he announced his grand plan to build and fully fund an ambitious new art museum, he faced unexpected opposition in two major American cities. And so, Lucas found himself in the truly unique position of being unable to find a home for his billion-dollar gift.
For at least seven years, Lucas has been pitching and lobbying for his Museum of Narrative Art, a sprawling monument to all visual art that tells a story, from ancient painted Greek amphora thru to modern digital animation. Lucas’s eclectic personal collection encompasses both high and low art, including original pages from the Flash Gordon comics, paintings by Norman Rockwell and Edgar Degas, and, of course, an extensive array of memorabilia and models from his Star Wars films. By presenting them all together, Lucas hopes to curate a populist and inclusive space and one that attracts those who might normally avoid a more traditional art museum.
Lucas’s first choice for a site was in his hometown of San Francisco. He had chosen a beloved area of the Presidio near Crissy Field, where locals gather for outdoor recreation and stunning views of the Golden Gate Bridge.
However, he encountered robust opposition to both his plans (some objected to the height of his design) and the content of the museum itself (too schlocky, some have speculated). And after an extensive and very public negotiation process, the Presidio Trust rejected the proposal in 2014. Lucas packed up and headed to Chicago, the hometown of his new wife, Mellady Hobson.
Finding a champion and a partner in Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Lucas decided to test his fortunes in the Windy City. He settled on an exceptional site next to Soldier Field, where the Chicago Bears play. While the site was only a parking lot—beloved only by diehard tailgaters—it was also near Chicago’s picturesque waterfront and within walking distance of several of the city’s foremost attractions, including the Field Museum and the Shedd Aquarium lakeside, positioning it ideally for field trips and convenience-minded tourists.
However, when Lucas unveiled the design for the building—a volcanic mass crowned with floating discs—the project was met with considerable backlash. In a city known for innovative architecture, the building was derided as “blob-like.” Eventually, public opinion soured, amidst a lawsuit from Chicago’s Friends of the Parks and a citywide conversation about public land and appropriateness.
With two strikes against him, Lucas decided to try something unconventional, essentially pitting two cities, Los Angeles and San Francisco, in competition for the project and its sizable endowment. Exhausted by negotiating, he instead let each of the cities’ mayors of each to court him with incentives.
On January 10, 2017, it was announced that Lucas had finally found his Hollywood ending. The site for the museum would be South Los Angeles’s Exposition Park, near the Natural History Museum and the campus of the University of Southern California. The area also falls within a Promise Zone— a Housing and Urban Development designation for high poverty communities selected for investment and improvement, granting the project an argument for meaningful community engagement.
In fact, the building would feel right at home in one of Lucas’s movies. The museum’s smooth, aerodynamic form recalls that of a perched intergalactic ship. Elevated above the park, it appears to be hovering, allowing curious pedestrians to walk under the building.
To preserve as much of the park’s atmosphere as possible, the building also boasts curving green roofs, a terrestrial touch to an alien structure. It is 275,000 square feet altogether, including 100,000 square feet for gallery space, and one can easily imagine the excitement and wonder it will stir up among visiting school field trips.
If there’s a lesson to be learned from the Museum of Narrative Art’s own story, it’s an old classic: that of hubris. Despite being self-sufficient for the project’s funding, the movie magnate still needed pesky civic approval to get his project off the ground. Opting for some of the country’s most prized public real estate likely didn’t help the cause. All of this serves as a reminder that a building isn’t just an idea and a bunch of materials. It’s also a contract, requiring the consent of many stakeholders.
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