Star Wars creator George Lucas’ vision of a museum of narrative art is big, bold and unapologetically popular. And Los Angeles, with its unique mix of high and low culture, is the perfect place to build it.Destination 2018: DetroitDestination 2018: Milwaukee
The plaque in the Getty Villa, a meticulous recreation of an aristocrat’s villa wiped out by Vesuvius in 79 AD, is demure about the life of its namesake; it doesn’t dwell on the fact that J. Paul Getty was once the richest man in the world, the billionaire head of Getty Oil, founder of Fortune magazine, a longtime Malibu-and-Mexico playboy with a penchant for 17-year-old wives and European art. Most people who remember him now usually associate him with an episode in the 1970s when his grandson, J. Paul Getty III, was kidnapped by the Calabrian mafia. The elder Getty refused to pay a ransom until after the kidnappers mailed one of the young man’s ears to an Italian newspaper.
Like Getty’s life, the villa, located in Malibu in the northern reaches of Los Angeles County, is idiosyncratic and extraordinary. Its halls are filled with a priceless collection of ancient Greek and Roman vases and pots illustrated with the exploits of mythological heroes and ancient kings. It enjoys an uninterrupted view, framed by redolent cypress trees and recreated classical gardens, of the Pacific. The oil tycoon himself is buried just up the hill, a site with the best view of all. Taken as a whole, the geographic space, the physical structure and the collection contained within tell a tale bursting with heroes, villains, beasts and sordid affairs commencing thousands of years ago and culminating in the eternal Southern California sunshine. It is the perfect museum for Los Angeles.
“Many of the institutions in LA were founded by individuals who had amassed a collection.” —John Giurini
For more than a century, LA has been dominated by one industry, and the biggest stories in Los Angeles have been those of that industry’s legendary producers, stars, studio heads and directors. The biggest stories—but far from the only ones. Though many Americans equate Los Angeles with Hollywood and stop there, the city has a vibrant, distinctive and growing arts and culture scene that may surpass that of any other city in the nation outside New York. Its impressive roster of museums includes the Getty, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of the Holocaust, the Broad, the Natural History Museum, the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum and a host of more eccentric offerings covering topics ranging from martial arts to death and even something called Jurassic technology.
“LA is still a very young city in comparison to DC or New York or even Chicago,” says John Giurini, assistant director for public affairs at the J. Paul Getty Museum. “So many of the institutions here don’t have the kind of longevity and history that other institutions in the country have. And many, if not all, of the institutions in LA were founded by individuals who had amassed a collection they wanted to share with the public.”
The latest addition since the Broad will be the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, a $1 billion project that broke ground in March and is being entirely paid for by Star Wars creator George Lucas and his wife, Mellody Hobson, president of Ariel Investments and soon-to-be vice chair of Starbucks.
“George has been through a lot of vicissitudes and a lot of change in terms of this museum, and he has never wavered from the vision of creating this place of inspiration and sharing,” says Lucas Museum president Don Bacigalupi, who spoke on Lucas’ behalf for this story. “That to me is remarkable, not only the dedication of resources—which is enormous—but the focus and determination to get it done.”
Lucas, you might not be surprised to know, has spent decades collecting “narrative art,” which is generally defined as art that communicates a story. The museum’s holdings will include Lucas’ personal collection of 20th-century narrative art—everything from advertising to Norman Rockwell paintings to concept art for movies such as Star Wars—as well as screenings of a full spectrum of films. Over the years Lucas tried, quietly and unsuccessfully, to partner with various institutions. Then, in 2010, the filmmaker made a major public push when he approached civic leaders in San Francisco about creating the museum in the Presidio, the storied national park at the base of the Golden Gate Bridge.
But after four years of negotiations, the Presidio Trust, which manages the park, rejected Lucas’ proposal because of design disagreements. Another factor appeared to have been a feeling on the part of some board members that narrative art is too middlebrow for sophisticated San Francisco. The rejection was a blow for Lucas, whose 3,000-acre Skywalker Ranch is about 30 miles north of San Francisco. In 2014, he ended his Bay Area aspirations and set his sights on Chicago, Hobson’s hometown, where mayor Rahm Emanuel offered 17 acres along Lake Michigan. But when Lucas released his space-age vision for the building, skeptics rebelled. Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin dubbed the project “Mount Lucas” and lamented that the proposed museum would be “the Temple of George, a monument to its patron rather than a modest addition to a democratic public space.” A civic group, Friends of the Parks, filed a lawsuit against the city to block the proposed museum. In June 2016, Lucas gave up. “No one benefits from continuing…seemingly endless litigation,” he explained. Hobson took a shot at the parks organization, saying, “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.”
So Lucas and Hobson began searching for another city to host their magnum opus, a city willing to take on an ambitious monument and that was, perhaps, less stymied by cultural traditionalists, more open to change. Los Angeles jumped at the opportunity.
In January 2017, less than six months after abandoning the Chicago attempt, Lucas announced that he would build his museum at Exposition Park, a 160-acre site near the University of Southern California.
“The city has been extraordinarily well coordinated in ensuring that the museum could be built here,” says Bacigalupi, who also helped create Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark., for Alice Walton, heiress to the Walmart fortune. “The city, the county and the state have all aligned themselves—all the elected officials, all the departmental leaders—in a way that I’ve never seen done anywhere.”
Los Angeles leaders saw the Lucas Museum as an opportunity to transform a struggling neighborhood. Exposition Park plays host to, among other facilities, the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum (home to USC Trojans football), the Banc of California MLS stadium, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, the California African American Museum and a massive, shimmering expanse of parking lots and a few scrubby trees. The Lucas Museum “is going to draw interest to and help revitalize that part of the city,” says Allan Abshez, chair of law firm Loeb & Loeb’s LA real estate practice, who has worked on numerous major developments in the city, including the Getty Center.
Located to the south of USC’s campus and downtown LA, the park has long marked the upper boundary of South Los Angeles, a predominantly lower-income, African American and Latino part of the city. Longtime residents recall the area around Exposition Park as being Crips and Bloods territory.
“A lot of things simply lined up,” says Mark Ridley-Thomas, a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors who represents the district that will house the museum. “Government can perform efficiently and expeditiously when it is motivated to do so, and the motivation was very high.”
The Lucas Museum will replace the parking lots with a soaring building evoking a mash-up of the USS Enterprise and Cloud City from The Empire Strikes Back. Accessible by the city’s light rail, it will be surrounded by parks and green space, a rarity in central Los Angeles. Parking will still be there—this is LA, after all—but tucked away belowground. The site’s parking lots have already been replaced by a roughly 40-foot-deep pit and soaring cranes. The museum is expected to open in 2021.
Lest the Lucas Museum come to be seen as yet another bastion for the wealthy and white, the team is considering offering free admission. The museum also plans significant arts and culture education offerings, not just in its own building but in the local community. In fact, it’s already started. On a blistering afternoon in mid-July, middle schoolers from South LA gathered in a classroom at the Challengers Boys & Girls Club, which doubles as a charter school during the academic year. The surrounding neighborhood—ramshackle houses, notarios, a few fast food joints—offers little to keep children occupied during the summer. As I walked through it, one concerned motorist stopped to ask if I was lost.
It was the fourth day of the Lucas Museum’s first educational outreach program, a two-week-long course in narrative art that included instruction in crafting stories and writing, comic art and character creation. This session was being taught by Shawn Martinbrough, a Marvel Comics writer and illustrator best known for his work on Black Panther. The previous day, the students had visited Disney’s animation studios, and by the end of the two weeks, each child would have produced his or her own short graphic novel, which would then be published as part of a collection. In the classroom that day, the children were experimenting with writing character outlines and then developing them graphically with pen and paper. Most characters took the fantastical forms of superheroes and villains—not so unlike the Roman pots on display in the rarified environs of the Getty Villa. Under Martinbrough’s tutelage, they practiced drawing them experiencing different feelings and engaged in different actions. Another teacher, a volunteer with writing nonprofit 826LA, turned the discussion to figurative language (“I could say, ‘I am the songs that played on my mom’s radio growing up’”), eliciting murmurs of comprehension from the class.
“Inspiration begins at the museum. Where it goes, where it takes people, is up to them.” —Don Bacigalupi
Bacigalupi expects the museum to draw between 800,000 and 1 million visitors in its first year, many from the surrounding neighborhoods. Its themes include the history of narrative art, which will show works by painters such as Degas, Renoir and Winslow Homer; the art of cinema, everything from animation to costume design to creature design; and digital art, including architecture, sculpture and video.
The accessibility of narrative art means that many of the visitors are unlikely to be traditional museumgoers, and the prospect of reaching a broad audience excites museum backers. “George will often say, ‘You know, inspiration begins at the museum. Where it goes, where it takes people, is up to them,’” says Bacigalupi. “It’s thrilling to think about. The next George Lucas may come through our door.”
See an extended Q&A with Don Bacigalupi here.
The family name of the late media magnate Walter Annenberg is all over the city, on university buildings and connected to public programs. The arts, education and humanitarian communities nationwide benefit from having this LA nonprofit working in so many scenes. 2000 Avenue of the Stars, Suite 1000 S, 310.209.4560, email@example.com, annenberg.org
With more than 1,650 members, the “voice of business” in the LA area focuses on innovation, education, small businesses and global trade. 350 S. Bixel St., Gary L. Toebben, president & CEO, 213.580.7500, lachamber.com
This nonprofit reflects the many facets of LA industry, from aerospace and transportation to entertainment and design, with an eye to innovation. 444 S. Flower St., 37th floor, William C. “Bill” Allen, CEO, 213.236.4811, info@LAEDC.org, laedc.org
Are you really not going to stay here at least once? West Hollywood’s castle for celebrities and people who look like they should be celebrities is also very, very pretty, a walk-in jewel box of old Hollywood charm. 8221 Sunset Blvd., 323.656.1010, chateaumarmont.com
A Santa Monica classic, the Fairmont Miramar is just feet from the beach and complements gorgeous pools with lovely, classically California architecture. Service at the restaurant, Fig, isn’t the best, but the cool vibe and stylish setting is what draws most guests, a mix of tourists and Hollywood types. The suites, especially the three-bedroom Bungalow One, with its residential feel, are well worth a stay. 101 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica, 310.576.7777, fairmont.com/santa-monica/
A newly renovated addition to Marriott’s Autograph Collection, the westdrift is a wonderful hotel. Deceptively simple but comfortable rooms overlook an emerald golf course, and while the location isn’t perfect—it’s a bit of a long walk to the beach—a five-minute cab ride puts you right on Manhattan Beach proper. But what makes the westdrift work is its communal lobby/bar/restaurant space; it’s spacious enough to afford privacy to those who seek it while also managing to encourage interaction and conversation between guests. A great seasonal menu at the restaurant, Jute, doesn’t hurt either. 1400 Parkview Ave., Manhattan Beach, 310.272.5908, westdrift.com
A pioneer of the all-meat experience, Animal is still a place to see protein reinvented and reworked as owners Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo constantly find new parts of the creatures of the Earth to prepare in fascinating and delicious ways. 435 N. Fairfax Ave., 323.782.9225, animalrestaurant.com
A Santa Monica classic from chef Sang Yoon, Father’s Office is known throughout LA for its nearly perfect hamburger, surprisingly healthful (or at least tasty) sides and a magnificently constructed beer list. It’s the kind of place that’s beloved by both the most discerning foodies and least fussy eaters. And it serves food late, not always a guarantee in sleepier parts of LA. 1018 Montana Ave, Santa Monica, 310.736.2224, fathersoffice.com
Los Angeles is known for its hole in the wall, hidden strip-mall treasure food scene, and Yabu is a great example. Tucked into a nondescript block with a few auto shops, this unassuming Japanese eatery boasts some of the best sushi in the city. A summer night saw one of the architects of Apple’s new San Francisco HQ and a couple of producer and director types enjoying a massive shared spread—sashimi, pork belly and more— and sake until long after nightfall. Reservations may be hard to come by, but the setting is pleasantly no-frills. 11820 Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, 310.473.9757, yaburestaurant.com
A satisfying mix of traditional art and more immersive experiences, LA’s newest contemporary art museum is itself a piece of performance art about the city: Plan ahead or expect sell-outs and lines. (Bonus: It’s free.) 221 S. Grand Ave., 213.232.6200, thebroad.org
While the main Getty art collection is housed at the J. Paul Getty Museum—and it’s a great collection—the Villa on the road to Malibu is a can’t miss destination. Architecturally, it’s a reproduction of a classical Roman villa, and it’s filled with one of the best collections of classical art in the United States. 17985 Pacific Coast Highway, Pacific Palisades, getty.edu/visit/villa
Nestled in the Hollywood Hills, the Hollywood Bowl is one of the great live, outdoor music venues in the country and is a center of cultural life in Los Angeles. It hosts the Los Angeles Philharmonic during the summer but also brings in top contemporary acts, from Dierks Bentley to the Arctic Monkeys. 2301 N. Highland Ave., Los Angeles, hollywoodbowl.com