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?
by Devin Leonard for Bloomberg Business Week:
“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.”
Rendering of the Lucas museum in San Francisco
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.
Rendering of the Lucas museum in Los Angeles
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.”
Read the rest on Bloomberg.