George Lucas Can’t Give His $1.5 Billion Museum Away
What does the creator of Star Wars have to do to get a little gratitude?
“I’ve been ready to retire for a few years,” George Lucas said. “The idea of going out and doing another Star Wars is something I’m not that crazy about. You know, it’s very consuming.” It was January 2013, and the creator of one of the highest-grossing movie franchises of all time was talking to this magazine about his decision to sell his company, Lucasfilm, to Walt Disney for $4 billion.
Lucas, who was then 68, said he was tired of critics and fans who believed he’d mishandled the Star Wars saga over the years—especially a second trilogy, known as “the prequels,” which were scorned for lacking charm and thrills. “I’ll be kind of happy to leave a lot of that criticism and personal attacks behind,” he said. “I didn’t sign up to be a politician.” He vowed to spend his final years puttering around with his camera, making experimental films that might never appear in theaters or expose him to the barbs of cineastes who think his last good movie came out in 1983.
Lucas has long been vexed by popularity: It’s the source of his riches, but also the thing that, he says, prompts elites to dismiss his work. It’s also an amplifier for discontent when crowds and critics complain that he has no taste. And yet in retirement, he’s mounted a legacy project that’s grand even by the standards of someone who thinks on a galactic scale. He wants to construct a Lucas museum to house and display his art collection—much of it proudly lowbrow, such as works by the sentimentalist Norman Rockwell; original Flash Gordon comic book art; Mad magazine covers; and memorabilia from his own Star Wars films. According to an early plan for the museum, his trove of Star Wars material includes 500,000 artifacts from the prequels alone. Lucas refers to such works as “narrative art,” the kind that “tells a story.” He believes they’ve been unfairly ignored by snooty critics and curators, and he wants his museum to rectify that.
Lucas has offered to build his museum in a major American city for free. Including construction costs, an endowment, and the value of the artwork, his organization says the total value of his gift is $1.5 billion. “It’s an epic act of generosity and altruism,” says Don Bacigalupi, the museum effort’s president. “George Lucas, as with any person of great resources and great success, could choose to do whatever he wants to do with his resources, and he has chosen to give an extraordinary gift to the people of a city and the world.”
But so far, Lucas hasn’t found a permanent home for his museum. The monumental project has brought him almost as much grief as Jar Jar Binks, the prequel creature from the planet Naboo with an oddly Jamaican accent that some found racially offensive. Lucas tried to build in San Francisco’s Presidio, which is a national park, and then on Chicago’s downtown waterfront, only to abandon both sites after being assailed by local forces. Some people derided his architecture. Others knocked the artwork. Lucas seemed to find most irritating those who said they didn’t mind his proposal but thought he needed to be more flexible about where he put his building. He had long suffered highfalutin critics as a nuisance when he was selling tickets to movies. Now they were thwarting his will when he was trying to give something away.
In Round 3, Lucas is pitting San Francisco and Los Angeles against each other as potential host sites. “Call it hedging your bets, call it beefing up your odds, call it the architectural equivalent of quite publicly asking two people to prom on the same day: Lucas’s dual-track proposal is an unconventional strategy by any measure,” wrote Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne.
The parallels between Lucas’s career as a filmmaker and his sideline as a curator are striking. With his movies, he never basked in the critical adoration enjoyed by his friends Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and Steven Spielberg. “I don’t really have a lot of awards,” Lucas said in a December 2015 interview with Charlie Rose, sounding glum. “I have an Irving Thalberg Award, and I get a lot of little awards. I’ve got two Emmys. But I’ve never had an Academy Award. I’ve been nominated, but I’ve never won. I’m too popular for that.” He pronounced the word as a pejorative, as if he’d been wronged. In the same interview, he called Disney “white slavers” for taking his Star Wars characters and doing whatever it pleased with them. He later apologized. (Disney must be doing something right: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, the company’s second Star Wars movie, made $290 million globally in five days when it was released in mid-December.)
Lucas has expressed similar bitterness in public about his difficulties in getting a city to say yes to his museum. He declined to comment for this story, but Bacigalupi defends his employer. “I find it sad that we live in such a society that can’t receive a gift in the way that it’s intended,” he says, “and instead throws up roadblocks and misunderstandings and sometimes willful misrepresentations to what a museum can be and what a gift really is.”
Crissy Field is a grassy area on San Francisco Bay in the Presidio—a former army base transformed by the government into a national park 23 years ago. On a Tuesday afternoon in early November, it’s filled with bikers, joggers, and hikers enjoying the view of the Golden Gate Bridge, considered one of the city’s finest. “This is just a fabulous place,” says Nancy Bechtle, an energetic 79-year-old with short brown hair, wearing a gray fleece, black tights, and sneakers. “You can see why it’s so beloved by people in San Francisco.” In 2008, President George W. Bush appointed Bechtle to the board of directors of the Presidio Trust, the agency that manages the park, and she soon became chairwoman. “I lost more sleep over George Lucas,” Bechtle says, “than I did over my teenage children.”
Lucas has a long history at the Presidio. In 2005 he constructed the headquarters of Lucasfilm on the site of an old Army hospital in the park. Five years later he approached the trust with an ambitious proposal to build a digital-arts museum on Crissy Field. “I wanted to build an iconic building like the Sydney Opera House or the Eiffel Tower or the Bilbao museum,” he told Rose in a 2014 interview at Chicago Ideas Week. “I wanted to get five of the top architects and have a contest and pick the best one.”
Bechtle liked the idea of a cultural center on the site. But she and the Presidio Trust board wanted something that would blend in and preserve views of the bridge. They also wanted to conduct an open competition for the site—it couldn’t just be Lucas’s for the taking. “If it’s your land, you can do pretty much what you want,” Bechtle says. “But with public land, there is just a higher level of scrutiny.” The trust developed design guidelines for the site. The building could be no higher than 45 feet; as for looks, the trust didn’t want a building that replicated an old-fashioned architectural style.
In March 2013 the trust announced it had received 16 submissions—including Lucas’s proposal for a Lucas Cultural Arts Museum chronicling the evolution of visual storytelling from primitive art to Renaissance painting to Rockwell to Star Wars. Bechtle thought it sounded rather nice. “I have a couple of grandsons who are very artistic,” she says. “I thought it would be just right up their alley to go and learn about makeup and design and costumes. They would have loved that.”
But Lucas’s proposal topped out at 69 feet. “It was a big, hulking building,” Bechtle says. It also had a Beaux Arts design—not exactly contemporary. John King, the San Francisco Chronicle’s urban design critic, says, “It was like Lucas just came in and said, ‘I’ve got this great thing. You should bend the rules and let me build it, because I’m going to pay for it, and I’m George Lucas.’ That’s how it came off to a lot of people.” King also doesn’t think much of the design. “It just looked like a generic Spanish-themed shopping center,” he says.
Rather than compromise, Lucas embarked on a PR campaign. The trust was inundated with letters of praise from such moviemaking colleagues as Coppola, Scorsese, and Jeffrey Katzenberg. A frequent donor to the Democratic Party, Lucas enlisted some of its local leaders, such as California Governor Jerry Brown, San Francisco Mayor Edwin Lee, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and Senator Dianne Feinstein, to chime in. Feinstein argued that the museum’s height made sense in the era of rising sea levels.
Lucas showed off his Rockwells in an exclusive segment on CBS This Morning to correspondent Bill Whitaker, who visited the filmmaker at his 5,000-acre Skywalker Ranch in Marin County, Calif. “Contemporary artists would say this is sentimental, this is schmaltz,” Whitaker said.
“Well, in the end, you either look at the world through cynical eyes or idealistic eyes,” Lucas replied.
In an interview with the Chronicle, he said he belonged to an esteemed line of creators. “As a popular artist, I hit the same chord with people that Rockwell hit, that Michelangelo hit, that the people who painted on caves in France hit,” he said. “I relate to art more as an emotional experience than as an intellectual experience.”
Lucas seemed serene in these interviews, but he was growing impatient. The Presidio Trust declined to discuss its negotiations with Lucas in detail but provided Bloomberg Businessweek with three boxes of e-mail printouts and internal documents in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. The correspondence reveals that the Lucas team refused to supply details about the art that would be shown, saying it was “private” information. Lucas’s plans mentioned using technology in the museum’s educational component. The trust asked what kind. The Lucas group said the information was proprietary.
Even so, Lucas made the cut when the trust narrowed the contestants down to three finalists, and it looked like the competition was his to lose if only he would bend. Nevertheless, in September 2013 his impatience boiled over in an interview with the New York Times. He accused the trust of purposely stalling in hopes of killing his museum. “They hate us,” he said, singling out Bechtle for making an issue of his Beaux Arts design. Lucas, who’d recently married Mellody Hobson, a glamorous Chicago mutual fund manager, said he was considering taking his museum to his wife’s city, where Mayor Rahm Emanuel was eager to have it.
Three days later, Lucas FedExed Bechtle a contrite letter. “I’m afraid my frustrations got the best of me,” he wrote.
“Is there an apology in there?” a board member asked Bechtle in an e-mail.
“Yes, I think so,” Bechtle said. “Oblique, but maybe the best he can do.”
Bechtle and the board didn’t want to lose the cultural center. They offered Lucas a site near his company’s old headquarters, with a lesser view of the bridge. His board members informed Bechtle that Lucas thought the site wasn’t important enough. “He’s bitter and he’s angry,” Bechtle wrote her colleagues. In February 2014 the trust canceled the competition.
In Chicago, Emanuel was doing all he could to woo Lucas. He convened a site selection committee that considered more than 50 locations, and in May 2014 they chose a 17-acre plot occupied by two parking lots just south of Soldier Field, home to the Chicago Bears. It was close to other museums, and to hear the committee tell it, the Lucas building would have views comparable to those in the Presidio: “Framed by the cityscape on one side and an awe-inspiring expanse of water and shoreline on the other, the Museum would be positioned amid the ideal combination of physical and natural beauty.”
Lucas happily accepted. The same day, Emanuel held a hastily convened news conference in Chicago City Hall. “I just got off the phone with George Lucas and Mellody Hobson to thank them for choosing Chicago, the most American of American cities,” he said. A reporter asked what the mayor was going to do about the Bears fans who used the parking area to tailgate. Don’t worry, Emanuel responded—he had it all figured out.
In October 2014 a triumphant Lucas strode onstage in his usual jeans and plaid shirt to speak to Rose—his preferred interlocutor—before an appreciative crowd at the Chicago Ideas Week conference. He’d been spending a lot of time talking to architects, engineers, and politicians about his endeavor. “It’s a very big, expensive museum,” Lucas said.
“Who’s going to pay for this thing?” Rose asked.
“I’m paying for the whole thing, and the endowment, and everything,” Lucas responded.
“OK,” Rose said. “You can afford a museum?”
“Yeah, I can.”
“Oh … my … God,” Rose said, laughing and amazed, as the crowd applauded.
Lucas changed the name of his project to the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art. The museum’s website took on a more scholarly tone, quoting French semiotician Roland Barthes and 15th century humanist Leon Battista Alberti. And in November 2014, Lucas unveiled a design for the museum by architect Ma Yansong.
Some thought it looked like a giant amoeba. Others saw a resemblance to Jabba the Hutt. Blair Kamin, the Chicago Tribune’s Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic, called it an unappetizing example of “blob architecture” and warned that it was too massive for the setting. “This is the Temple of George,” Kamin wrote, “a monument to its patron rather than a modest addition to a democratic public space.”
Lucas courted directors of other Chicago museums. “It was exciting to hear his vision about the importance of narrative art in the world, in human history,” says Gary Johnson, president of the Chicago History Museum. “I found that very, very compelling.” But aside from his appearance at the Ideas Week festival, Lucas kept a low public profile, frustrating the Emanuel administration, which wanted him to help sell his museum—perhaps by exhibiting some of his art so Chicagoans would have a better idea of what would be on its walls.
That left Emanuel, who declined several interview requests, as the museum’s primary champion. His approval ratings were falling, and in a runoff election in 2015 he was savaged by his opponent, who called Emanuel “the mayor for the 1 Percent” and assailed him for promoting “a monument to Darth Vader” on the waterfront, when other areas of the city were more in need of development. After Emanuel won reelection, he still had to contend with Friends of the Parks, a citizens’ group that wanted to halt the museum’s construction. Its executive director, Juanita Irizarry, argued that the lakefront site was “public trust land” and the city had no right to turn it over to Lucas. “Our lakefront is our jewel,” she says. “If we say yes to this, who says Oprah doesn’t come back to town and want to put a museum on the lakefront? We all love Oprah. But should that be OK?”
Friends of the Parks filed a federal lawsuit. Illinois’ legislature was at the time weighing a bill to allow President Obama to build his presidential library on Chicago’s South Side, and it obligingly added language authorizing the city to lease such land to museums. The bill became law, and in October 2015 the city and the Lucas museum signed a 99-year lease in exchange for $10.
Nevertheless, the Friends of the Parks lawsuit progressed, and Lucas again got restless. He started to flirt with other mayors. “We immediately got into contact,” says Los Angeles’s Eric Garcetti. Lucas was also approached by other cities, including Oakland, Calif.; Youngstown, Ohio; and Waukegan, Ill.
In Chicago, Emanuel made one last push. Supporters of the museum picketed outside the offices of Friends of the Parks, carrying signs that depicted Irizarry as a Sith Lord of the Dark Side. Every time they did, Irizarry says, her group received more donations. Lucas remained conspicuously silent, but not his wife. After an unproductive meeting at her office with Irizarry, Hobson attacked the group in a scathing public statement: “As an African American who has spent my entire life in this city I love, it saddens me that young black and brown children will be denied the chance to benefit from what this museum will offer.” Chicagoans pointed out there were plenty of alternative sites besides the downtown waterfront. Obama’s library, for example, will be in Jackson Park, on the edge of a predominantly poor black neighborhood. “That was good enough for Barack Obama,” the Tribune’s Kamin says. “It wasn’t good enough for George Lucas and Mellody Hobson.”
In June, Lucas announced he was abandoning Chicago and taking his project back to California.
The Lucas museum continues to evolve. In August the Chronicle published a lengthy piece by its art critic, Charlie Desmarais, who’d been given what the newspaper called “an exclusive first look” at the filmmaker’s collection at his estate in Marin County. It seemed like a tactical shift for Lucas—an indication that he could see that the elites needed to be stroked rather than scorned. Desmarais, a former museum director himself, wrote that he made two visits to Skywalker Ranch and spent hours talking to Bacigalupi, an old acquaintance. As expected, much of Lucas’s trove was decidedly prosaic; along with Star Wars items, Desmarais found illustrations from Winnie the Pooh books, R. Crumb comic book art, Betty Boop drawings, Doonesbury strips, and a Rockwell assortment that now encompassed 147 works. The thread binding it all together might be hard for some to see, but Desmarais was impressed. “In fact, it may just be the core of a great museum,” he wrote.
Meanwhile, Lucas was talking with the mayors of two of California’s largest cities. Los Angeles’s Garcetti concedes his town is the underdog, but he insists L.A. can offer a site downtown, in Exposition Park, with no delays. “We told George we have all the stars lined up to get this done and get it done quickly,” he says.
However, Lucas’s preference is probably San Francisco, where he’s looking at a site on Treasure Island, a former U.S. Navy base on a man-made island with a magnificent view of the city skyline. There’s not much there, aside from a few former military buildings and some low-income housing. The island isn’t easy to get to; it can be reached only via the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. But the city rather than the federal government controls Treasure Island, which means a smoother approval process than at the Presidio. And unlike the Presidio or Chicago’s Museum Campus, Treasure Island could use some help from Lucas. “George Lucas’s problem is that he keeps going after these premier urban sites,” says Mitchell Moss, an urban studies professor at New York University. “He needs to trade down. Treasure Island could be perfect for him. There’s not much there now. This would give people a reason to go.”
And Lucas has creative connections to the Bay Area, notes Adam Van de Water, who’s overseeing the project for Mayor Lee. Lucas shot some Ewok battle scenes in The Return of the Jedi in nearby Muir Woods, Van de Water says, and segments of THX 1138 in the BART Tunnel. Some believe the cranes at the Port of Oakland inspired the AT-AT walkers in The Empire Strikes Back, though Lucas has denied that. Even Treasure Island had a cameo in a Lucas movie. “The Berlin airport in Indiana Jones 4 was the Treasure Island administration building,” Van de Water says.
The island seems to have inspired a better design by Lucas’s architect, Ma. The Chronicle’s King didn’t like Lucas’s blueprint for the Presidio, and he dismissed the Chicago building as a “big lumpy mountain.” But he says the proposal for Treasure Island has a certain snazziness that defies description. “Is it a sports car?” he says. “Is it a stingray jumping out of the water? Is it a skull? If we’re all going to have to start looking at iconic, metaphorical architecture, this is a lot more interesting than a big lump.”