If you were richer than God and looking for ways to spend $1 billion, what would you do? I’d build a rocket-launching lair under a volcano in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and surround myself with disposable henchmen. Not so George Lucas, who has chosen to use his powers for good and to build a new museum to house his enormous art collection. The website for his project raises all sorts of questions – more on that shortly – but what I find most striking is that, more than once, it promotes the future site as a place for “visitors who might be less inclined to visit a traditional fine art museum”. Interesting. Does this mean people who are inclined to visit such museums won’t like it? If the audience he is after doesn’t really fancy museums, why make one? I’m fascinated by this project, and the controversy that surrounds it, because it brings into question what constitutes a 21st century art museum.
Surprisingly, Lucas has struggled to find a city willing to host this venture. Back in 2009, negotiations started with The Presidio Trust for a site in San Francisco, but that fell through and an opportunity came up to build in Chicago. Lucas’ wife, Melody Hobson, is a Chicagoan, and there was an appetite for the project from the mayor’s office, but its location proved tricky. They had decided on a prime spot, shoreside on Lake Michigan, but hadn’t counted on strong local (and wealthy) opposition. Cue three years of legal wrangling and lawsuits filed by Friends of the Park, who were having none of it. An interesting article in the Chicago Tribune, ‘Lucas Museum Drops Plans to Build in Chicago’, summarises the sorry saga. Eventually, a new home was found in Los Angeles at Exposition Park. This site is near Lucas’ alma mater, the University of Southern California, so it retains a personal connection, and it’s a good fit given the city’s strong links with cinema and movie-making. They are due to break ground this year and the project is scheduled for completion in 2021. The 275,000 sqft building, designed by Ma Yansong of MAD Architects, looks like the spaceship of super-stylish modernist aliens. When it finally ‘lands’, it’ll be hard to miss.
Even though the site issue is now resolved, the controversy doesn’t end there. The title of a recent LA Weekly article says it all: ‘Is George Lucas Museum a Vanity Project That Will Leave LA’s Cultural Worse Off?’ Critics feel that $1 billion would be better spent supporting existing arts infrastructure and worry that such a self-contained, self-financed project won’t fully integrate with its peers: “Nothing about the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art’s self-presentation suggests overarching concerns with collaboration or shared cultural concerns.” Even the subject of the collection is scorned; the same LA Weekly article states, “narrative art isn’t exactly a real thing”, and then goes on to quote LA Times critic, Christopher Knight, who wrote, “narrative art is a made-up category”.
I’m afraid the Lucas Museum website doesn’t do itself any favours either in how it describes its collections. More than once it makes a distinction between ‘traditional paintings’ (whatever those are) and the working drawings and designs of film-making and illustration. I don’t really think the distinction is necessary – surely art and design is a broad enough church to encompass the scope of Lucas’s collection. Compared with the eclectic and extensive collections of the V&A, it’s positively laser-like in its focus. But what the LA critics are implying, and Lucas’s own PR machine is reinforcing, is the distinction between high and low art forms – ‘proper’ art, like the sort you would find in a “traditional fine art museum”, and then all the other stuff that appeals to the man on the street. This dichotomy is so old it creaks. It’s also not helpful to perpetuate the outdated myth that museums are for a certain type of person (all cognac and cravats) and that the rest of us prefer blockbuster movies (all popcorn and trackpants). Lucas claims to be creating a new kind of museum – “One visit may change not only the way you think about museums but what you think art is”. Unfortunately, in order to identify his museum as something different, Lucas is trotting out some very old-fashioned ideas about what a museum is, and who it’s for.
What about the learning programmes? According to the website, “We will make education and access a priority; our programming and education will make pioneering [my emphasis] use of our one-of-a-kind collection”. Well that’s exciting – and it makes sense too. If one is going to revolutionise museums, one may as well pioneer innovations in programming as well. As you can imagine, I read on with great anticipation, looking forward to learning more about the novel approaches they have planned. Brace yourselves, this is the headline list for ‘Collection and Education Programming’: collection presentations; temporary exhibitions; daily film-screenings; film premieres, public lectures; hands-on workshops; school tours and programmes; classes for all ages; and campus-wide festivals. Hmm. Has your mind been blown? No, me neither. There is more detail further down the page on the proposed offer for each audience, but it’s nothing I haven’t seen before and could be considered fairly standard programming.
I’m being harsh; I appreciate that a bit of PR puff about a theoretical programme that is still at least four years away is not necessarily going to reflect the quality of the final product. It just grinds my gears that this is a phenomenal opportunity to actually do something pioneering and it would be a shame to squander it. I really want their ‘docent-led tours’ and ‘hands-on art-making workshops’ to change the game, but their aspirations to do something spectacular are currently sitting within a very well-established template.
What the team will have to their advantage is the facilities: state-of-the-art cinemas; production-quality editing; digital and analogue classrooms; lecture halls; library; and practical studios. That lot could be the envy of any learning department. Such high-tech rooms could enable amazing programming that promoted skills development and career-focussed training. And with so many film-making practitioners and creatives in close proximity, there will be plenty of opportunities for setting ‘real world’ design briefs.
It’s not unusual for a rich man to create a museum and have it named in his honour – J. Paul Getty, Solomon R. Guggenheim, Henry Tate, and Charles Saatchi have all made their mark on the art museum world – and rich women have also made an enormous cultural impact, especially Peggy Guggenheim and Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. It must be frustrating for Lucas that this gesture of creating a new museum – which he probably perceives as an act of generosity – has been met with so much suspicion and, in some case, open hostility. Perhaps we’ll all end up eating humble pie when it’s a massive success. To date, the project has been a lightning rod for debates around elitism and the patronage of museums. It would be amazing if their learning programmes have the same impact on museums as Star Wars had on cinema. Why aim for less?