What is a Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, anyway? The question George Lucas leaves behind

One way or another, George Lucas is going to get his museum.

It won't be in those giant daubs of Marshmallow Fluff he wanted to occupy in Chicago, it turns out. Not now, not after Friends of the Parks elected not to be friends of the project, and a federal judge agreed that they might have a point about not putting the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art on the city's lakefront.

Certainly not after Lucas last Friday chose to quit on the possibility of winning his argument in court and cut the cord tying the project to Chicago, the hometown of his wife, Mellody Hobson.

Hobson is "just heartbroken by this," her boss, Ariel Investments CEO John W. Rogers Jr. told the Tribune this week. Since their statement of withdrawal, she and the "Star Wars" creator have been silent on the matter, allowing various associates to publicly lament the loss of job opportunities and excitement for the children.

But Lucas will get a museum. And whether it goes up in San Francisco or Los Angeles or, I don't know, Cabo San Lucas, people seem to still be puzzled by one throbbing question: What is a museum of narrative art?

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"The Lucas Museum will be a barrier free museum where artificial divisions between 'high' art and 'popular' art are absent, allowing you to explore a wide array of compelling visual storytelling," www.lucasmuseum.org proclaims. It will be pitched at "visitors who might be less inclined to visit a traditional fine art museum."

Readers understand, I think, that Lucas has in mind more than just a "Star Wars" museum, although that movie franchise is essentially the source of the funds for the museum and for the filmmaker's art collection that will occupy it.

"We'll have 'Indiana Jones,' we'll have 'Lord of the Rings.' We're going to have a lot of movies, not just my movies," Lucas said in October 2014, in a Chicago Ideas Week interview that was, as best as I can tell, his only public appearance here pushing the project.

The museum will also feature Norman Rockwell paintings from Lucas's collection, a tribute to an artist firmly in the tradition of narrative art and one Lucas sees as underappreciated.

"The Metropolitan Museum (of Art) in New York has some Rockwells; they just don't ever display them," Lucas said on the stage at the annual festival, where he was interviewed by friend and TV host Charlie Rose. "There's a lot of museums that have this kind of artwork that they just don't display because they don't think it's worthy or whatever. But hopefully with this, it'll draw attention to it."

The attention in the year-and-a-half since then, however, has not yet turned to the art. At the Tribune I cover museums, at least the kind that have operating hours and needlessly complex ticket plans and gaggles of schoolkids on typical weekday mornings.

The Lucas Museum saga, I mostly let play out where it belonged, in coverage of the issues over its siting, led by architecture critic Blair Kamin. In the two years from the breathless announcement that the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art would occupy a parking lot south of Soldier Field to last Friday's withdrawal statement, it never really became a museum story.

It was a land-use story, a public-policy story, from some perspectives an arrogance-of-the-powerful story. In retrospect, it would have served us all well to keep top-of-mind that Lucas brought the proposed institution here only after his native San Francisco would not grant him the waterfront parkland site he wanted there.

But there were two points in late 2014 when I did try to let people know just what would go inside the Lucas's buildings, an architectural design I said brought to mind "the science-fair volcano of an obsessive "Star Wars" fan." One was in coverage of the Lucas talk. One was when the museum quietly updated its website to offer a more detailed mission statement than the largely placeholder material that had been there before.

"When you visit the Lucas Museum you will explore how storytelling functions within the visual arts," the website explains. "The Museum will allow you to explore narrative art from two distinct perspectives: from the maker's perspective, as we explore how storytelling artists create impact in visual form; and from the viewer's perspective, understanding and celebrating the successes of these narrative art works."

The three pieces of art featured on that page are the 1920 Joseph Christian Leyendecker painting "Football Players and Fans" (in a style that looks Rockwell-esque), a 6th Century BCE Greek amphora decorated with a battle scene, and a production still depicting biolumes from the 2009 film "Avatar."

"The great thing about narrative art, it's designed for the people," said Lucas. "It was always designed for the people. It's not an elitist art at all."

And it is, apparently, pretty inclusive in how it can be defined.

The site's narrative art explanation includes quotations from French literary theorist Roland Barthes and from Rockwell, opining that "if you can tell a story in your picture, and if a reasonable number of people like your work, it is art."

Featured narrative art categories are illustration, children's art, photography, pin-up art, and comic art, as well as fine art by painters including Bellows, Benton, Renoir and Remington.

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While much modern art rejected narrative, the piece concludes, "Narrative Art's popularity with the general public never wavered, pointing to its ability to cross cultural and social boundaries in its plainspoken, genuine style."

But as much as the Lucas Museum wants to claim a place at the table for more everyday artworks, it also wants to be, it sounds like, a kind of top-line movie palace, "a cinematheque," Lucas called it during the Ideas Week appearance.

In the film realm, it plans to offer "a comprehensive collection of regional, national and international cinema, experimental and independent film, video, and digital media," says the website.

Also: "The Lucas Museum will regularly screen legendary archival films and offer conversations with filmmakers, film scholars and critics. In addition, the Museum will host workshops for schools, colleges and after-school programs, as well as lectures on the history of cinema, with an emphasis on regional cinema."

So to sum it up, this "Museum of Narrative Art" will be, apparently, a populist art museum with a strong concentration in showing movies.

That is different, of course, than a good cinema with some art on its lobby walls. But whether it is different enough to merit prime waterfront real estate is a question that some other city must now decide.

sajohnson@tribpub.com
Twitter: @StevenKJohnson

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