A new hope for Lucas Museum in LA

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Los Angeles and San Francisco are competing to play host to George Lucas’ Museum of Narrative Art, which comes with a site-specific design by Ma Yansong.

UPDATE: On Jan. 10, 2017, it was announced that Los Angeles will become home to the Lucas Museum. In a statement announcing the decision, LA Mayor Eric Garcetti said, “L.A. is gaining a new jewel with the breathtaking Lucas Museum of Narrative Art… I believed in the vision for the Lucas Museum, and we went after it with everything we have — because I know that L.A. is the ideal place for making sure that it touches the widest possible audience… Now it’s time to build the vision.”  Read more here.

If you are George Lucas and you have to choose a site for your museum, would you pick the Rebels or the Empire? I mean, Los Angeles or San Francisco?

The Star Wars creator has been looking to build a museum for his art collection for several years. And the saga has nearly as many sequels as Star Wars itself.

Los Angeles had offered up the LA Memorial Sports Arena site back when Lucas had his eye on the Presidio in San Francisco, with a design the San Francisco Chronicle described as a “mock-classical temple.”

Then Lucas pulled out of San Francisco, and focused on Chicago. He also switched to a much more futuristic design by the young Chinese architect Ma Yansong, founder of MAD Architects.

“I wanted somebody who was very leading edge, somebody who designed digitally because the third part of the museum is about digital art. So he’s a very avant-garde Chinese architect, he’s very brilliant, he’s never made anything in the United States,” Lucas told Charlie Rose in 2014.

As it turns out, Ma Yansong, builder of massive developments shaped to echo forms of nature, has an office right here in Los Angeles. And now he has a project under construction — a condo and retail building in Beverly Hills that has a surreal charm because its dwellings and trees are raised above the ground floor shops, like a tiny town hoisted into the sky.

For Chicago, Yansong designed a museum within an artificial hill which he described two years ago to DnA.

“I think our building is very unfamiliar for our society now. Our building is not a stand alone object. It’s an environment, I would say. But I think people watch Star Wars as an inspiration. A lot of young people, they become very curious about what is possible,” Yansong told DnA in 2014. Contemporary architecture, he said, should show people “what the future of architecture can be.”

As it turned out the lake shore location incensed some Chicagoans, who wanted to preserve lake views and believed the project benefited Lucas more than residents.

So now Lucas has set his sights back on the West Coast, and once again has pit LA and San Francisco against each other. The Bay area city has selected an underdeveloped island called Treasure Island, while LA is sticking with the Exposition Park site, a narrow strip of land containing surface parking lots on Vermont Avenue.

A rendering for the proposed Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in Los Angeles, by MAD Architects.

The LA site is just a stone’s throw from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, which Lucas helped pay for and designed.

And Lucas has had Ma Yansong design a new scheme for both sites. It’s no longer an environment and it is a stand-alone object. His fluid digital design brings to mind a long, lean spaceship that has landed. But the LA version is a spaceship with gardens woven into its roof and flowing underneath.

Mayor Eric Garcetti believes that this time around Angelenos have a good shot at winning the museum.

“I think why we can win this, is Los Angeles can provide predictability. We have land that is already controlled, it’s public land, it’s right now a parking lot. So this would be a welcome addition of new green space and have this soaring inspirational design,” Garcetti said.

“We also don’t need to do an Environmental Impact Report, and that allows us to be able to really have this museum up and running much more quickly than in the Bay Area, which I think is so important to the Lucases right now. They want to see a museum that George can enjoy while he is still here and one that can inspire the most people. San Francisco is a beautiful location but it’s literally on an island, whereas Los Angeles has ten local high schools within walking distance and an Exposition Park that is filled with wonders of the mind.”

Left out in much of this saga has been any talk about the mogul’s art collection itself. Even without seeing it, art critics have tended to be dismissive, noting Lucas’s affection for Norman Rockwell paintings. LA Times critic Christopher Knight has referred to it as Lucas’s planned “treacle museum”:


But the art critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, Charles Desmarais, managed to get a look at the collection and wrote that it “may just be the core of a great museum.”

“I think it’s a spectacularly good collection for what it set out to be. I think every museum collection should have a clear mission and a clear definition of where the institution wants to go with its collection. The museums that we love, the great institutions, none of them pay attention to these popular art forms that have defined in very interesting ways who we are as a culture,” Desmarais said.

The museum’s collections are divided into three categories: The History of Narrative Art, The Art of Cinema, and Digital Art. This gallery includes works ranging from children’s cartoonists Beatrix Potter and politic cartoonists James Montgomery Flagg, to concept renderings from well-loved movies.