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The Billionaires’ Museum Builder

Creating museums for some of the world’s wealthiest collectors takes a deep understanding of art, and a certain charm.

Don Bacigalupi with a model of the Lucas Museum. Photo by Brad Torchia

Don Bacigalupi is arguably America’s most innovative museum director, and he’s become a trusted partner to some of the nation’s wealthiest individuals when they want to create public art institutions. Bacigalupi currently serves as the founding president of the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in Los Angeles, a $1 billion project from filmmaker George Lucas that is slated to open in 2021, and he previously was the founding director and president of Alice Walton’s Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark. Over the course of his career, Bacigalupi, a carefully-dressed academic who naturally speaks in paragraphs, has become adept at working with exacting collectors and benefactors. Worth caught up with Bacigalupi in Los Angeles and discussed the origins of the new museum, Lucas’ personal collection and the meaning of narrative art.

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 Q: How deep is George Lucas’ involvement in the Museum of Narrative Art? Is it just his memorabilia from his films or is “narrative art” something bigger than that?

A: Obviously George is involved, but I think I’ll start by saying what narrative art is. Fundamentally, not only does the museum not exist yet, but any museum like this doesn’t exist yet. We’re trying to create a 21st-century museum around an idea that has not been expressed or manifested in any particular way anywhere in the world.

How so? What makes this different than the collections at other museums?

There is an argument to be made that narrative forms the very basis of human communication. I’m telling you a story right now; you’re telling me a story; we’re constantly telling stories in one form or another. George Lucas’ argument in creating the museum is that narrative has been in visual form from the very earliest marks of humans in caves in Southern Europe. All of the technologies that humans have invented in order to tell visual stories create this kind of alternative art history that is about the very human need to communicate through story.

In other words a fundamental aspect of this is the idea that everything in the collection will tell a story in addition to being a work of art in some way.

Art museums and art history as a study have focused on other aspects of making art. We can debate and discuss all the different ways in which art is compartmentalized or contextualized or intellectualized. But the very clarity of George’s vision both as a storyteller himself and as a collector of visual stories is a compelling idea that has been ignored and marginalized. What we have here is an opportunity to reposition art at the center of communication, which is where it rightly should be and where it was for millennia and in cultures other than our own. We have an opportunity to look at the very meaning of the story, and the very meaning of being human and communicating through stories.

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George Lucas comes from the film world. How will movies and TV, the moving picture, be integrated into the museum?

In the context of film and moving images [we’ll work in] two ways: One is we will have cinematic theatres in the museum in which we will be presenting, in a repertory fashion, lots and lots of films on a daily basis. Classic film was made to be experienced communally, in a theater, on a big screen. I often use the example of seeing TheWizard of Oz. I’d never seen it on a big screen; I would only see it on television, every year, when I was a child. And so the experience of seeing that film as it was intended to be seen, in a communal audience on a big screen, was remarkable.

The other way in which we’ll explore film and other moving image forms is to sort of unpack the way in which they are made and to look at all the various arts that go into the construction of something like a film. Following the example with Oz: You went to the museum to see that film in a theater setting and then stepped into the gallery next door and saw all of the art forms that came together to make that film, from storyboards to costume sketches, to the costumes themselves, to the props, set pieces and matte paintings.

How will Lucas’ personal collection support the larger collection of the museum?

George Lucas has probably been contemplating this notion for decades both as a maker and as a collector of art and stories. The idea for the museum has evolved tremendously for him from the idea of presenting a collection of objects that he had built and collected and lived with and thought about, which is a very deep collection that’s fairly narrow in its scope: Largely American art from the first half of the 20th century, illustrations, comic art. George as a collector has been dedicated to the notion of narrative. As we began to discuss it a few years ago, within the space of the museum, it became much more exciting to think about that body of work in a much larger historical context and in a global context.

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You previously put together the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art for Alice Walton. Have you become the go-to person for billionaires starting art museums?

I don’t think so. Certainly I never intended to be. What I’ve been attracted to in these roles is the opportunity to have a real impact. My work has always been about breaking down boundaries between art and the public. Obviously, in order to do that, it takes some support. So, I’ve worked on very large public education projects and exhibitions and museums, and I’ve also worked with enormously philanthropic individuals who have wanted to make that work happen.

For me, the magic spot is the bringing together people of means who understand the value of sharing with the broader public. Crystal Bridges was a great example of that. I didn’t know Alice Walton or the Walton family. I was asked to come and visit with them. Almost immediately when Alice and I began to speak about her vision for the museum it was all about sharing. It was all about broadening the opportunities for education through art. She wanted to ensure that children, like herself, who grew up in Arkansas, would have access to that knowledge and that inspiration.

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