Lucas Museum Of Narrative Art: A Museum Searching For A Home

In an earlier blog post we described the process used by the National Parks Service and the Presidio Trust as they worked together to develop a new pedestrian-friendly parkland in San Francisco’s Presidio. The location of this new parkland overlooks a very popular recreation area known as Crissy Field. The field has beaches, enormous grassy areas, and a broad pathway for running, walking and bike riding. It also has stunning views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Marin Headlands. It is safe to say that this piece of real estate is one of San Francisco’s most valued treasures.

Crissy Field San Francisco

In 2010 film maker George Lucas approached the Board of the Presidio Trust with a proposal to build a museum at the edge of Crissy Field next to the new parkland. The museum Lucas proposed would house his extensive personal collection of narrative art. It is a collection that includes fine art, illustration, comic book art, hand painted and digital animation cels, and schematics used by movie set designers.

The proposed museum building was designed to reflect the neo-classical look of the nearby Palace of Fine Arts, a beloved piece of architecture left from the Panama-Pacific Exposition of 1915.

proposal for Lucas Museum in Crissy Field

Lucas said he would totally fund construction of the museum with his own money and establish an endowment that would pay for the facility’s operation in the future.

The Lucas Museum proposal had support from local and national politicians as well as major figures in the movie and hi-tech worlds. The site had also been pre-approved for a museum back in 2002 when a master plan for the Presidio was first developed.

Even though the project had all these positive things going for it the museum encountered major resistance.

Influential Presidio Trust Board members and staff never really warmed to critical aspects of the project – the style and size of the building in that particular location and the perceived “low brow” nature of the collection. One condescending e-mail from a hired consultant referred to the entire venture as “the Empire meets Middle America.”

Many Bay Area residents had similar feelings. Most were hesitant about building anything in that picturesque location.

The situation was complicated even further by the Lucas team who were strong-willed to say the least.

After four years of wrangling (with some compromise on both sides), almost no concrete progress had been made and Lucas withdrew the proposal. He would, instead, take the museum project to his wife’s home town of Chicago.

For the Chicago version of the museum, Lucas hired the adventurous young Chinese architect Ma Yansong to design a totally modern structure.

proposal for Lucas Museum in Chicago

Once again Lucas proposed building on prime waterfront property, this time the shore of Lake Michigan near downtown. The site is between Soldier Field and McCormick Place – an historic football stadium and a convention center. He also promised to self-fund the construction and to establish an endowment for the museum’s future.

From the very beginning the museum faced legal challenges. The Chicago Bears football team was upset about losing valuable parking spaces and an environmental group called Friends of the Parks sued to stop the construction because it would endanger the shoreline.

As he had in San Francisco, Lucas received the support of influential politicians. This included the Mayor, Governor and members of Congress. His supporters tried multiple tactics to satisfy opponents of the project and to work around legal restrictions. Existing laws were challenged and some were changed. The Friends of the Parks, however, did not back down and matched every Lucas team effort with one of their own.

Local pundits called the planned building a “needlessly massive intruder” and “Jabba the Hut’s temple.”

After nearly two years of wrangling (again with some compromise on both sides but no concrete action), George Lucas withdrew his proposal and announced he would not build the museum in Chicago.

In the meantime new possibilities have come up. Influential people back in San Francisco are attempting to restart the project here. A large group, including a Senator, the Lieutenant Governor and three former Mayors took out a full page ad in the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper asking Lucas to consider a new site in the city. This new site is on Treasure Island in the Bay half-way between San Francisco and Oakland.

Treasure Island San Francisco

Treasure Island is a manmade island built to hold the 1939 World’s Fair. It is a former military base that has been converted to civilian use. The island is slated for a massive influx of development funding in the next decade and the museum would be a showcase anchor to all of it. Being a small island it is nearly all shoreline, something that Lucas seems to like.

The city of Los Angeles is also attempting to convince Lucas to restart the project near The University of Southern California campus where Lucas attended film school.

So far there is no indication from Lucas about what he intends to do going forward. This entire sequence of events remains a cautionary tale about powerful people trying to accomplish their agenda, and the ability of common people to stand up in defense of their valued resources.

Learn more about the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art.

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