Why Los Angeles Deserves the George Lucas Museum

Choosing L.A. gives Lucas the legacy he deserves

UPDATE: On Jan. 10, 2017 the board of directors for the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art announced that the Lucas Museum is coming to Los Angeles. The board said in a statement: South Los Angeles’s Promise Zone 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. 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. Now we turn our attention to finalizing the details and building what we believe will be one of the most imaginative and inclusive art museums in the world—a global destination that all Angelenos and Californians will be proud to call their own.” The board did not indicate whether this extremely well-argued article factored into its decision. It would be wildly irresponsible to speculate, but we will anyway. Yes, it did. What you are about to read was clearly the difference-maker.  

We know. There’s supposedly this big rivalry between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Glam on one side, granola on the other. Hollywood and Silicon Valley. Sun vs. fog. The eternal struggle for who has the worst traffic in America (L.A., clearly.) To the extent that there is a rivalry, it’s one-sided, because Angelenos generally like San Francisco. When we hear that a Hyperloop could connect our two cities in 35 minutes, we’re like yes, hurtle us toward delicious chowder bread bowls at mind-bending speeds Elon Musk, you magnificent sonofabitch.

Wisely, it seems, George Lucas has pitted Los Angeles vs. San Francisco as the finalists for the forthcoming Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, with the winner to be announced later this month, and both cities are lobbying for the prize. Normally this is our cue to belittle whatever city dares compete with us, but we’re not going to do that. Because here’s the truth: the Lucas museum will thrive in either city. Buuuuuuut a case can be made that it will have a more meaningful impact here.

The museum, which Mayor Eric Garcetti has called the largest civic gift in American history, will bring an estimated 1,500 construction jobs, 350 permanent jobs and a fresh attraction for locals and tourists, and it’s all free, with Lucas and his wife Mellody Hobson paying for the $1 billion building themselves. The art, from Lucas’s personal collection, is valued at $400 million, and it includes pieces from Norman Rockwell and other renowned artists. Lucas’s collection of movie memorabilia, which also will be on display, includes storyboards and costumes from famous movies, including Star Wars. In all, it’s a mix of classic and pop art, meant to draw the interest of people who don’t normally go to museums. In spite of architect Ma Yansong’s spaceship design (seriously, does that thing have a tractor beam?), it is not a Star Wars museum, though it will house some Star Wars artifacts.

The practical case for L.A. is that far more people live here, and far more people visit the city. According to official estimates, some 45.5 million people visit L.A. annually, and according to my estimates, 38 million of them wander The Grove looking for something else to do. San Francisco gets about 24.6 million visitors annually. Our museum would be located in Exposition Park, near the California Science Center, Natural History Museum and California African American Museum, as well as the Coliseum, meaning it would live in an already-museum-trafficked-area, near a major college, close to a bunch of high schools, not far from downtown, with a Metro stop.

Proposed Los Angeles design. Courtesy of the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art.

The proposed San Francisco location is a four-acre plot on Treasure Island, which is a manmade spit of land just east of Alcatraz in the middle of the bay. It has a bus line, but—and this has to be considered a huge minus—no subway stop. The island faces the city’s skyline and would offer a stunning view.

Proposed San Francisco design. Courtesy of the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art.

Why is San Fran in the mix? Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola set up shop in the Bay Area at the dawn of their careers, which didn’t exactly enthrall Hollywood. And that was OK with them. Lucas has made no secret of his enmity for corporate Hollywood culture. Then Lucas pointedly headquartered his own Skywalker Ranch in Marin County. While his contemporaries lived and worked in Los Angeles, Lucas, whom “George Lucas: A Life” author Brian Jay Jones says always viewed himself as “the fist-shaking, independent, little guy,” remained up north. Lucas did keep a division of his company in Hollywood for a while. Jones recalls Lucas once saying, “Every time I came back from vacation, everybody but me had assistants.” Wary of Hollywood’s creeping influence, he closed the L.A. office.

It seems to have worked out OK for him.

The narrative case for building the Lucas museum in Los Angeles—and we think a gentleman building a museum dedicated to the narrative form might appreciate this—is the chance to bring his career full circle, back to where he took his formative steps as a filmmaker as a student at USC, to the place where he first connected with Coppola on the Warner Brothers lot, here in the entertainment capital of the world. The Lucas museum would beautify both cities, and its artifacts would enrich visitors’ lives in either location, but here in Los Angeles, where we create so much of the world’s popular culture, generations of filmmakers and writers would have ready access to a building that stands as a testament to the virtues of operating outside the system, building your own creative universe, and blending technology with storytelling.

The Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in San Francisco: a beautiful legacy.

In Los Angeles: perpetual inspiration.

It’s the better third act.

Joe Donatelli is the Senior Writer at Los Angeles magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @joedonatelli and Facebook. He wrote: The 100 L.A. Things Every Angeleno Needs to Do.