Advice for The Lucas

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Image showing how Ma Yansong’s design for The Lucas Museum of Narrative Art will look in Exhibition Park, Los Angeles.

The Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, which now has a site in Los Angeles after a long search, will house George Lucas’s art collection and more. Here are my unsolicited bits of advice for Don Bacigalupi, founding President, Judy Kim, Deputy Director, and anyone else who will listen. The Lucas (let’s deal with that whole “narrative art” thing in a moment – doubtless it will be known far and wide by the simpler name) has the cards stacked against it in some ways, and I’d rather offer help than join the naysayers.

Okay, now to “narrative art.” As Mr. Bacigalupi writes “Narrative art is visual art that tells a story. It manifests itself in every kind of medium, in every culture, in every form that you can imagine.” In short, this museum is about everything but abstraction, and even that could be slipped in with a bit of clever sleight-of-hand. It’s a broad category encompassed in a clunky term. “Representational art” might have come closer – Lucas’s collection includes things like costume designs for movies, which only tell stories tangentially. Still, the name seems set, so let’s move on to more important things.

Perhaps the most important part of the museum’s mission is its intention to continue collecting art. Say what you will about George Lucas, he is no curator, and his collection has been built around personal taste rather than the intent to tell a story – sorry, a narrative. The samples from the collection featured on the website immediately reveal the Lucas collection’s limitations:

It consists overwhelmingly of European and American art from the 1800s on. Vast swatches of history are missing, going back to when narrative art was pretty much all there was.

The collection is also predominantly male and white. Try to convey 2oth century art without the likes of Jacob Lawrence, for example, or Betye Saar. A lot of work is needed to round out the collection.

The art is overwhelmingly secular, whereas art history is dominated for centuries at a time by religious imagery.

Lucas’s collection of photographs is more documentary than narrative – that is, the stories already exist, as opposed to photographers like Cindy Sherman or Gregory Crewdson, who use photos to make up their own stories. It’s odd that a museum that will feature movies, children’s book illustrations, and comics has nothing make-believe in photography.

And while we’re here, how about Surrealism? Narrative doesn’t end with the limits of reality; your children’s book illustrations show that. Show some of the notable women surrealists, such as Leonora Carrington or Remedios Varo. I could go on.

Regarding movies: a certain amount of Star Wars is inevitable, but keep it to a minimum. Without giving too much offense, they are not the immortal artworks George might imagine them to be. Again, a lot more needs to be done outside of Hollywood. Start with the Quay Brothers and go from there. Alexandro Jodorowsky, Jiri Barta, perhaps Germaine Dulac.

And let’s discuss integration – not in the racial sense, but in the sense of breaking the boundaries between mediums. Photography, illustration, and “fine art” fed off each other continuously, and still do. When movies came along, they were added to the mix. Too many times museums hang their collections by medium, and downplay the ongoing synergies. Hang drawings, photos, paintings, together by theme. Make it clear that art doesn’t content itself with boundaries.

Los Angeles is a hard market for a new museum. It has a plethora to choose from, and the Lucas will have to present top-flight exhibitions as well as its permanent collection. The museum has deep pockets, but people will only come if there’s something worth looking at. I’d suggest they look to the Norman Rockwell Museum, which presents a rich schedule of special exhibits as well as its permanent collection, and thrives a long way from any metropolitan center.

One little quibble: museums ought to strive for accuracy. As a lifelong Oz fan, I can’t help but notice that one of the John R. Neill drawings in the collection (this one) is listed as being from “The Patchwork God of Oz.” Not quite. Try “Patchwork Girl” instead.

To everyone at the Lucas, good luck! Here’s hoping you won’t need it.

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