George Lucas Takes a Play Out of the NFL Owners Playbook

George Lucas—the man who seemingly can’t take no for an answer—unveiled last week two new schemes for his already twice-rejected Lucas Museum of Narrative Art. One is for Treasure Island, in San Francisco Bay; the other would be Exposition Park, in Los Angeles, near the Natural History Museum. Both are long, swoopy, Zaha-esque products of Chinese architect Ma Yansong, a former Hadid acolyte and the creator of Lucas’ previously rejected design for Chicago’s Grant Park.


Lucas, you’ll recall, is rolling the dice in two cities, after failing to get approval for a clunky Beaux Arts-inspired design for San Francisco’s Presidio and then Ma’s huge, kitschy “building scape,” proposed for a lakefront site in Grant Park and successfully spiked in court by a Chicago citizens group.


The estimable Christopher Hawthorne, in the Los Angeles Times, writes, “Call it hedging your bets, call it beefing up your odds, call it the architectural equivalent of quite publicly asking two people to prom on the same day: Lucas’ dual-track proposal is an unconventional strategy by any measure.”


Ma Yangson’s proposed design for Treasure Island, in San Francisco Bay.


Unconventional, indeed, for the museum world.


But the strategy of pitting cities against each other is a classic move out of the professional sports playbook. It is, in fact, one of the most effective and time-honored ways billionaire owners get city governments to pay for new stadiums. For years, the National Football League used Los Angeles—a huge market that until quite recently did not have a team—as leverage, as its big stick. Although it seemed to weather 21 years of pro-football deprivation just fine, Los Angeles loomed in the background of virtually every stadium negotiation. Pony up, was the unspoken threat, or we move to L.A.


The  Oakland Raiders—who moved to Los Angeles in 1982 and returned to the Bay Area in 1995, after failing to get a stadium built in L.A.—had in recent years been flirting again with the southern California market, the NFL equivalent of courting your ex-wife. But now that the Rams have returned to Los Angeles (from St. Louis), the Raiders have turned their attention to Las Vegas, a city desperate to be thought of as “big league” and more than willing to spring for a new stadium. (The irony here is that the Raiders, as well as baseball’s Athletics, play in the worst facility in professional sports, the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, and actually do need a new stadium. Not only is it deficient in most of the lucrative amenities found in stadiums today, it is an absolute and thoroughly authentic shit hole.)


In the National Basketball Association, another sports enterprise owned by the billionaire class, Seattle currently plays the role of Phantom Stalker: the large and wealthy hoops-deprived market waiting quietly in the wings. The city lost their beloved Seattle Supersonics in 2008, when a referendum to publicly fund a new arena failed and the team moved to Oklahoma City. I think Seattle will eventually get another NBA franchise, but in the meantime it serves, unwittingly, as an extremely effective chess piece that owners can play when their own home cities balk at spending $300-$500 million on a new arena.


Now, in fairness to George Lucas, his strategy with the museum might more accurately be described as “Civic Extortion Lite.” Because, unlike the NFL and NBA owners, he is not asking San Francisco or Los Angeles to pay for his museum, which could become an eventual repository for a personal art collection valued above $1 billion; all he wants is a site and their approval to build on it. (You wouldn’t think it would be this hard.) Still, the two-city bake off is essentially a less mercenary version of the game pro teams routinely play.


After his initial proposals for Chicago and San Francisco were rejected, the filmmaker has not lacked for suitors. Los Angeles came through with the offer of a site near his alma mater, USC, which Lucas rejected; ditto for an offer from Youngstown, Ohio (talk about a dark horse!).


All of which suggests to me that San Francisco remains his first choice:  Lucas’ film production company has been based there for years, and still is, even after Disney shelled out $4.05 billion to buy it in 2012. And Lucas’ principal residence is just across the Golden Gate in Marin County. That would make it easy for a modern Medici to keep tabs on the billion-dollar art collection he promises eventually to endow (to the tune of $400 million) and install in the museum he is offering to build (for at least $300 million)—if only he can get permission to build it.


Featured image: Ma Yansong’s scheme for Exposition Park, in Los Angeles, via Los Angeles Times. 


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