Lucas Museum to come to LA

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How did LA wind up the winner?

There was a long road that lead to this decision for filmmaker George Lucas. 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. The lake shore location incensed some Chicagoans, who wanted to preserve lake views and believed the project benefited Lucas more than residents.

So Lucas set his sights back on the West Coast, pitting LA and San Francisco against each other. The Bay Area city has selected an underdeveloped island called Treasure Island, while LA offered up the Exposition Park site, a narrow strip of land containing surface parking lots on Vermont Avenue.

The museum's board of directors picked the site in the South Los Angeles Promise Zone in which Exposition Park sits, saying it "best positions the museum to have the greatest impact on the broader community, fulfilling our goal of inspiring, engaging and educating a broad and diverse visitorship." The statement continues, "Exposition Park is a magnet for the region and accessible from all parts of the city. As a museum uniquely focused on narrative art, we look forward to becoming part of a dynamic museum community, surrounded by more than 100 elementary and high schools, one of the country's leading universities as well as three other world-class museums."

Earlier, Mayor Garcetti told DnA, "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."

Who is Ma Yansong?

Lucas's chosen architect Ma Yansong -- young Chinese hotshot, age 41 -- with office in LA; he is known for massive structures in China that draw formal expression from the shapes you find in nature (he calls it the Shanshui City). Examples include Harbin Opera House, Ordos Museum in the Mongolian new city of Ordos and the Chaoyang Park Plaza underway in Beijing. MAD stands for MA Design but also the adjective Mad.

Yansong has a building under construction in Beverly Hills, 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.

Lucas says he was looking for futuristic design (even though he's a fan of historic architecture). Lucas spoke about Yansong in an interview he gave Charlie Rose when he was considering the Chicago site. "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 said of Yansong.

Yansong designed two schemes, one for the SF site, one for LA. Both are fluid digital designs that bring to mind a long, lean spaceship that has landed, or perhaps the sole of a high-tech running shoe. But the LA version is a spaceship with gardens woven into its roof and flowing underneath.

Lucas as Master Planner?

The LA Times quoted Mayor Garcetti as saying, "Lucas has expressed interest in helping to guide a master plan" for Exposition Park. What does that mean?

Lucas is already involved with the area through the USC School of Cinematic Arts building that he underwrote and helped design (in faux Italian style.) The LA Times points out that the site is already home to the California Science Center, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and the California African American Museum. Plans for the new museum, which will rise along Vermont Avenue on land now covered by parking lots, will include underground parking.

"We have a new football stadium being built, the Coliseum being redone with more than $200 million in upgrades, and the science center is building a whole new building to permanently house the space shuttle and its rockets," Garcetti said, also noting the proximity to the Expo light rail line and bus lines. The Lucas Museum, he said, "will be the jewel in the crown."

The Lucas museum board called Exposition Park "a magnet for the region and accessible from all parts of the city." It also noted that the location is "surrounded by more than 100 elementary and high schools, one of the country's leading universities as well as three other world-class museums."

How about the Collection Itself?

Many critics have mocked the Lucas museum collection of "narrative art" (also referred to as the "art of storytelling), filled with Norman Rockwell paintings; LA Times art critic Christopher Knight has referred to it as The Treacle Museum.

DnA spoke with SF-based art critic Charles Desmarais who begged to differ, saying it's a remarkable collection of "the materials that have been neglected by the art establishment" out of the last 150 years or so. "None of them pay attention to these popular art forms that have defined in very interesting ways who we are as a culture," he said.

The collection consists of about 10,000 paintings and illustrations including works by Norman Rockwell, N.C. Wyeth and R. Crumb, along with Hollywood memorabilia from films such as Star Wars and The Ten Commandments, from the 19th century through to now.

It includes original illustrations for Beatrix Potter, Winnie The Pooh, Aesop's Fables, as well as political cartoons and R Crumb's "Genesis" -- and of course contemporary animation and digital art.

Desmarais told DnA, "For the most part these are the original objects that were then reproduced by whatever technology was current at the time to share with the public... And you can't think of a name of a children's book illustrator or a comics illustrator that isn't represented. It's quite remarkable."

Is This Yet Another Billionaire's Vanity Museum?

Some ask if this is yet another vanity museum -- like The Broad and the upcoming Marciano Art Foundation, the contemporary art museum from Guess co-founders Paul and Maurice Marciano (opening in Koreatown this spring).

The US has a history of vanity museums, and some are very good -- just think the Frick Collection and Barnes Foundation and, in Pasadena, the Norton Simon Museum. So the question should probably be: is this individual's museum a good collection and does it give back to the public? Or is it a questionable tax write-off? If you are excited about a major collection of narrative art, and a new building by a leading edge architect like Ma Yansong, then maybe the vanity part is worth indulging.

Groundbreaking is planned before year's end, a spokesman said, with the opening targeted for 2021.

Photo: A rendering of the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, to be built in Exposition Park in Los Angeles.