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The Gift Horse from Outer Space

Ron Russell | November 15, 2013 | Story Politics

Among the 200 or so people crammed into a ’50s-era commissary turned community hall at the Presidio, George Lucas isn’t hard to spot. In his trademark well-worn jeans, open-collar shirt, and blue blazer, with a Confederate-gray pompadour that might as well be a beacon, he is holding court amid an entourage of acolytes and minglers. His friend John Lasseter, Pixar Studios’ chief creative officer, is close by his side.

They’ve come to pitch the Lucas Cultural Arts Museum, which they hope to locate on a front-and-center eight-acre spot in the Presidio, near Crissy Field. Given last year’s sale of Lucasfilm and sundry other fragments of the Lucas empire to Walt Disney Company for over $4 billion, the museum is shaping up to be the 69-year-old movie mogul’s personal legacy project. Intended to house his extensive cache of visual art, including relics from the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises, it would also display works by the likes of Norman Rockwell and Maxfield Parrish. To top it off, Lucas has offered the gigantic sum of $300 million to build the museum, plus untold millions more to fill and endow it. But despite that largesse—and even though this meeting is the first formal unveiling of the project—detractors have already (and will continue to) come out of the woodwork.

Lucas is one of three entities vying for the Presidio Trust’s approval to occupy one of the choicest pieces of developable land remaining at the cherished historic army fort and national park. Also in the running is the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, pushing a multidisciplinary interpretive center known as the Presidio Exchange, or PX. The third contender, the Bridge/Sustainability Institute, is touting a sustainability themed project that’s the work of architecture firm WRNS Studio and Chora, a Washington-based museum consulting company. The trust, which manages the park, is expected to announce its choice by year’s end.

But let’s be real. Neither of Lucas’s so-called competitors has funding: If by odd chance either were chosen, it would be years before a shovel ever hit the ground. Team Lucas, on the other hand, is raring to go. It possesses well-developed plans for a sprawling, beaux jour arts– style domed palace. It claims an A-list of political backers, from Senator Dianne Feinstein to Governor Jerry Brown to Mayor Ed Lee. Even its website exudes the certitude of a done deal, a museum-in-waiting.

All of which raises the question of why there’s so much indifference, if not simmering hostility, toward a gift that almost any other city would do somersaults for. In October, the Examiner ran an editorial that deemed Lucas’s proposal “not the best idea for that area,” and the Chronicle’s John King offered the Palace of Fine Arts as a preferable site. That month, during a public comment session on the three proposals, sentiment appeared to be overwhelmingly opposed to the Lucas plan.

Part of the reason for this antipathy, of course, lies in what Lucas wants to construct on such a prized parcel within a historic national landmark. From the moment that his involvement became known, preservationists, environmentalists, and other Presidio aficionados have reacted coolly to the idea of an entertainment-related museum on the hallowed 218-year-old former military post. “The Lucas museum is totally out of keeping with what the park should be,” says Gary Widman, who heads the Presidio Historical Association. It’s also possible that Lucas’s full-throttled push to get what he wants—gift or not—rubs people the wrong way. “There’s an aroma of hubris,” says San Francisco architect Lucia Bogatay, who is among those opposed to Lucas’s Presidio ambitions.

With a couple of exceptions, Lucas has routinely turned down media requests to talk about his museum (including one for this article). His explosive interview with Deborah Solomon of the New York Times in September might explain why. In the piece, he revealed that he had been talking to the Presidio Trust about a museum at Crissy Field since 2009— though the trust didn’t get around to setting up its ostensibly competitive process until a year ago. Stunningly, he also chastised trust officials for stalling him and berated chairwoman Nancy Bechtle (sister of the late philanthropist Warren Hellman) for dissing the design. “I thought a museum was a concept that people already bought into about 200 years ago. They’re having us do as much work as we can, hoping that we will give up,” he told Solomon. “They hate us.” Finally, he threatened to pull up stakes and go to Chicago if his plans weren’t approved soon.

This was no mere one-off slip of the tongue. “His patience is not limitless,” says Lucas spokesman David Perry, who—in deference to the supposed competition going on—casts the filmmaker’s Presidio efforts as an act of philanthropic largesse “in the style of Carnegie, Smithson, and Rockefeller.” He adds, “If a decision drags on” much longer, “it’s not very good for San Francisco’s chances.”

For some who have dealt with Lucas over the years, his take-it-or-leave-it approach isn’t surprising. “George is really a pick-up-your-marbles- and-go kind of guy if he doesn’t get what he wants,” says film professor and journalist Dale Pollock, author of a Lucas biography published in 1984 after the first Star Wars trilogy. After enjoying Lucas’s cooperation, Pollock says, he was cut off completely when he refused to make hundreds of changes that Lucas demanded after reading the final draft. “With George, it’s all about control. He really resents anyone interfering with his plans. If you sort of dare to question or disagree, he’s not tolerant of that.”

Case in point: Lucas doesn’t put up with anyone whom he perceives as infringing on the merchandising empire spawned by his movies, sending cease-and-desist orders to electronics manufacturers, T-shirt peddlers, and even fan club members. His legal storm troopers once swooped down on a Star Wars fan club in New York after learning that it was planning to charge a cover for all-day screenings at a neighborhood bar. In 1985, he famously sued lobbyists for President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative in a vain effort to prevent SDI from becoming known by the lobbyists’ pitch moniker: Star Wars.

In Marin, Lucas’s longtime home, his support for charitable causes and efforts to preserve open space have earned accolades—but he has still managed to acquire a hard-nosed reputation. Rather than pay about $100,000 to a San Francisco socialite and would-be assistant to his household staff—Julie Gilman Veronese—to make her 2010 hiring discrimination lawsuit go away, Lucas is believed to have spent more than $1 million fighting it through a trial and an appeal, an ordeal that ended this year with an undisclosed settlement. After a rare setback last year, in his quest to build a state-of-the-art digital arts production facility at his Grady Ranch, he thumbed his nose at the neighbors who opposed it by publicly announcing that he would work with a nonprofit to put affordable housing on the ranch. (The idea never got off the ground.)

If they are embarrassed (or cowed) by Lucas’s hardball pronouncements and take no prisoners reputation, Presidio Trust officials have done their best not to show it. Lucasfilm and its sister entities, occupying Letterman Digital Arts Center (now part of Disney) on the Presidio’s northeast corner, constitute the trust’s single largest nonresidential tenant. Letterman accounts for $6 million annually in revenue for the park, which, although successfully self-sustaining, needs every penny it can scrape up. “I really can’t comment on any level of frustration he may have,” trust executive director Craig Middleton tells me. And Bechtle (who declined to be interviewed) seemed to go out of her way to hold a poker face at an October hearing aimed at letting the public sound off on the Presidio proposals, telling an audience sprinkled with Lucas supporters in bright orange T-shirts, “I have to tell you I have absolutely no idea as to the outcome of all of this.”

Although Presidio watchers are betting on a decision favorable to Lucas, one thing is clear: The trust’s decision in the near term won’t settle the outcome. Up next: a labyrinthine federal review process that’s bound to be contentious, with those opposed to Lucas— assuming that his museum gets the nod—just waiting to jump in.

Some predict a replay of 2009, when another wealthy philanthropist (and longtime Presidio Trust board member), the late Gap cofounder Donald Fisher, saw his Presidio ambitions crumble amid public opposition. His proposal for a modern art museum on the Main Post to house his and his wife Doris’s acclaimed private collection had the backing of the Presidio Trust, then-mayor Gavin Newsom, and a majority of the Board of Supervisors. But facing the prospect of protracted litigation from some of the same preservationists and others who are now lined up to oppose Lucas, Fisher struck a deal shortly before he died to send the couple’s collection to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Colonel Whitney Hall, a Lucas museum naysayer who was the Presidio’s last army commander before the fort was turned over to the National Park Service in 1994, sees something similar happening this time. “My hunch,” he says, “is that George Lucas is going to feel he’s being nibbled to death by ducks and will end up going away.”

Originally published in the December issue of San Francisco

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