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What exactly is a museum of narrative art, George Lucas?

13 February 2017

In 1967, Roland Barthes announced the ‘Death of the Author’. His essay argued that the meaning of a text does not rest with the writer but with the reader’s own methods of interpretation. His scholarship had consequences for art history, giving the viewer a level of agency in interpreting works of art. Barthes’ text is also useful in a museum context, encouraging more open conversations and responses around objects, and allowing visitors to make their own meaning. If, then, the viewer can see their own story in a work of art, or object, they can also build their own narrative in a visit to a museum or gallery. What will they find in a museum of narrative art?

The Lucas Museum of Narrative Art has recently been announced for LA, the brainchild of Star Wars-creator George Lucas and set to cost over $1 billion. It will be installed in Exposition Park in the south of the city, in a spaceship-style building designed by architect Ma Yansong. Lucas has been trying to establish this museum for over a decade; a proposal to build in Chicago was abandoned due to the controversial site chosen on the city’s lakefront. In bringing the project to California, it was cleverly pitched as a battle between LA and its neighbouring cultural giant, San Francisco, with Yansong producing slick building designs for both.

Rendering of the George Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, LA. Image courtesy of Lucas Museum of Narrative Art

Rendering of the George Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, LA. Image courtesy of Lucas Museum of Narrative Art

This battle, played out between city dignitaries, highlighted the jobs and tourism that the museum would bring to its chosen city, but this seems to have stopped anyone questioning what the museum is actually about. What is narrative art? The website explains the museum’s remit as ‘visual art that tells a story [and] manifests itself in every kind of medium, in every culture, in every form that you can imagine’. Channelling Barthes, the museum will show art from the perspective of the maker and then of the viewer. But how do you define art that ‘tells a story’ as a separate category, let alone define your viewer’s perspective. All art tells a story; what are art history and exhibition curation if not the telling of stories?

Let’s turn to the objects. The 40,000 artworks come from Lucas’s own collection, on which the museum will continue to build. They include paintings, prints, drawings, graphic comics, photography, film and costume. There are works by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Saul Bellows, Edgar Degas, Norman Rockwell, Beatrix Potter, Arthur Rackham, Mad Magazine, Charles Schulz, and Norman Parkinson. There are set, make-up, costume designs and animations from films including Star Wars, Metropolis, Avatar, Toy Story and Looney Tunes. There are costumes from Dior and Alexander McQueen. Film appears to be the overriding focus and some reports even refer to Lucas’s project as a movie museum.

For Lucas and his team, such diversity supports ‘an unprecedentedly expansive and open definition of art, acknowledging that all visual art forms can make a meaningful connection with viewers’. The three ‘lenses’ through which the museum will look at art are ‘the history of narrative art’, ‘the art of cinema’ and ‘digital art’. Narrative art here seems to be art that has been used to tell a narrative of Lucas’s own, about what he likes, and about those art forms he believes to have been neglected by other museums.

Yet all of the types of art included in the Lucas collection are already well represented in the collections of LA’s thriving museums: the Getty, LACMA, the Huntington Library, the Hammer, and, I suspect, even the Museum of Jurassic Technology. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is also developing a new movie museum to open in 2018. If Lucas wants to expand the holdings and displays of varied art forms, and public access to them, just think what a difference the billion dollars being spent at Expo Park could do at these already popular institutions. Perhaps what is needed is a Lucas education and exhibition programme that ties collections together and looks at them differently, bringing serious attention and financial support to the art that he loves, and providing the ‘free and affordable access and engaging educational opportunities to youth’ – which the museum says is central to its mission.

The collection and mission are about Lucas’s own view of art and his passion for collecting. Why not create a Lucas museum about these, about the idiosyncrasies of one of the most visionary filmmakers of our time, and the works that have inspired him? Make a museum about collecting and movies. I wait with interest to see this museum’s narrative develop.