Exhibition Inquisition

The stuff you look at, but don't see.

Chapter 3 (Part 5): The Lucas Cultural Arts Museum

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“I thought a museum was a concept that people already bought into about 200 years ago. They’re having us do as much work as we can hoping that we will give up. […] They hate us.” – George Lucas

Like the Fishers, filmmaker George Lucas wanted to build a museum in San Francisco’s Presidio. Lucas wanted to bring his Lucas Cultural Arts Museum to Crissy Field – a beach-front portion of the Presidio National Park with killer views of the Golden Gate, Alcatraz, and the Bay. Lucas must be reading Eli Broad’s museum-building playbook: After Lucas’s proposal was rejected he threatened to take his museum and collection to another city. Will billionaire Lucas get what he wants by leveraging cities against one another? Remember those sweet deals Santa Monica and Beverly Hills offered Eli Broad when he was “considering” them instead of Downtown for his museum? We know how that turned out.

Lucas with Rockwell's "Shadow Artist."

Lucas with Rockwell’s “Shadow Artist.”

Lucas was making plans for his museum in 2009, but didn’t make a formal proposal until the Presidio Trust, which oversees and maintains the Presidio, sent out an RFP for the Crissy Field location. By March of 2013 16 proposals had been submitted, and by September those had been narrowed to three including Lucas’s museum. Lucas’s proposal was for a new Beaux-Arts-style museum to house his collections of illustration (lot of Norman Rockwell) and film ephemera (heard of Star Wars?). Lucas was willing to spend $700million: $300M for construction and $400M to endow it–he was good for it too, having sold the Star Wars franchise and Lucasfilm to Disney in 2012 for $4.05 BILLION dollars…

With the Presidio Trust’s November decision looming, Lucas was gathering support; SF Mayor Ed Lee and Senator Dianne Feinstein officially endorsed the proposal. Additional support came in the form of a letter from 34 cosigners, which included tech titans Laurene Powell Jobs (wife of Steve Jobs), Marissa Mayer (Yahoo CEO), Marc Benioff (Salesforce founder), Jack Dorsey and Biz Stone (twitter founders). Other cosigners included former 49ers quarterback Joe Mantana and MC Hammer. (YOU CAN’T MAKE THIS STUFF UP.) Lucas was playing defense buy also offense –threatening to take his museum project to Chicago should the Trust nix his proposal.

George Loves Domes.” – David Perry, George Lucas Spokesperson

The Trust rejected all three proposals –kind of. The Trust decided to give the teams three months to respond to feedback on the proposals. The main concern with the Lucas Cultural Arts Museum proposal was the size and style of the building: a 93,000-square-foot structure was big for Crissy Field and its natural setting.

So much "tuscan" cast-stone decoration.

So much “tuscan” cast-stone decoration.

The architecture was another issue. The beaux-arts style was reminiscent of the new buildings at the USC School of Cinema.  One of these, the George Lucas Building, is seriously tacky (tons of cast-stone decoration) and, I would argue, too large for its site. Lucas didn’t seem willing to budge much: “There’s nothing wrong with replicating old architecture,” Lucas said, “Basically all of Washington is a mimic of the past.” But SF isn’t D.C. Lucas also began to complain publically that the Presidio was being unfair and making him “jump through hoops.” The Presidio Trust’s board chair, Nancy Bechtle’s, response to Lucas’s whining: “We have an obligation to San Francisco, not political pressure […] if (Lucas) walks, he walks. We’ll take the brunt of the pressure.”

There were legitimate concerns on both sides. On the one: Should national parkland be given over to a private collector? Was the Presidio the correct place for an art museum (the Fishers’s CAMP never got public approval)? And what about the dated architecture? On the other: Why would the city pass on the collection? On a new museum paid for with private funds? Didn’t San Francisco want to remain competitive on tourism? Regardless, those domes in Lucas’s renderings had to go.

Faux-beaux-arts sans domes.

Faux-beaux-arts sans domes.

In February, the Trust said no thanks to all three proposals—an option the Trust had always said it might choose: to postpone a decision for a future time. But the Trust came back to Lucas and offered him another less contentious location in Presidio. Lucas response was lukewarm—he was willing to consider the site, but was also open to proposals from other cities. Across the Bay, Oakland offered Lucas a site almost immediately.

Chicago was pleased with Lucas’s interest and Mayor Rahm Emanuel promptly organized a task force composed of civic and cultural leaders to determine a list of suitable sites to offer. In response to Emanuel’s efforts, SF Mayor Lee decided to up his game and announced he too was having his staff develop a list of sites that might appeal to Lucas. Lee said, “I will not let go easily of such a significant private investment.” But this is rapidly becoming a game of public-private investment with major cities competing against one another, with Lucas now having all the power. Lee’s list will be announced sometime before the end of the month, while Emanuel’s list will be presented to Lucas mid May.

What is at stake here? Lucas’s collection: yes, film memorabilia is fun, but wouldn’t it be more at home in say, Hollywood? His art: it drew record numbers when it went on view at the Smithsonian Museum, but is labeled “illustration” somehow different from serious art. His museum: Does San Francisco need another one? That was an argument against the Fishers’s CAMP. Tourism dollars? – Tourists spent a record$9.38 billion at SF businesses in 2013—would the city really be losing significant income? According to a 2010 study done by the San Francisco Travel Association, out of ten domestic markets San Francisco’s biggest competitors in Arts and Cultural Tourism were Las Vegas and Los Angeles. Which brings me to my final question: Why isn’t Los Angeles vying for Lucas’s museum?

I couldn't resist.


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  1. […] Broad, like Alice Walton, the Fishers and George Lucas, has a long history with the city in which he practices his “venture philanthropy.” Broad was […]

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