In truth, though, the museum may be Lucas’s best original idea since A New Hope. Lucas proposes an institution that—like his culture-hopping, historically inspired films—connects the visual storytelling techniques of antiquity (cave art, illustrations) to the those of the modern day (animation, digital art), for a time-bending, medium-defying, cross-platform experience. If the premise appears self-serving, it is also the logical culmination of a few art-world trends old and new.
“Vanity projects” are nothing new in America, where the arts are driven primarily by private, not public, funds. Old-school, philanthropic museums of the kind Isaacs praises were themselves public monuments to their founders’ savvy. They were also, as MIT professor Peter Temin writes in The Economics of Art Museums, a tastemaking project by nouveau riche American tycoons: When the Industrial Revolution triggered fears that the growing immigrant workforce would prevent America from developing a highbrow culture like Europe’s, the wealthy fought the perceived onslaught by funding institutes filled with old-world classics “to educate the people's taste, to help them identify with the values of the successful industrialists.”
Today’s benefactors, though, buy and preserve what they consider purely American art. According to Anne Higonnet, a Columbia University and Barnard College art history professor and the author of A Museum of One’s Own: Private Collecting, Public Gift, private collectors in the past few decades have been stealthily accumulating valuable holdings in order to tell their versions of the country's art history. “Each in their own way these museums are making a bid to define what art is in America and what it has been in the 150 years,” she told me.
There’s a fittingly egalitarian spirit to this latest wave of museum openings. Higonnet pointed to the Rubell Family Collection founded by the famous hotelier family, which opened shop in a former DEA facility in Miami’s rundown Wynwood neighborhood to display the kind of avant-garde works usually found in high-end art galleries. Perhaps even more daring is Crystal Bridges, Walmart heiress Alice Walton’s passion project that brought Lichtenstein and Warhol to a small town in the Ozarks. Costing a reported $1.2 billion to open in 2011, Crystal Bridges doesn’t charge for admission, a fact that, as Roberta Smith wrote in her New York Times review, “convey[s] the belief that art, like music and literature, is not a recreational luxury or the purview of the rich. Rather, it is an essential tool… [that] helps awaken and direct the individual talent whose development is essential to society, especially a democratic one.”
Lucas, too, is trying to popularize American art history—but by using the lessons he's learned in the movie business. According to the bits and pieces in his proposal and his museum website, he will sponsor an “experience” emphasizing that art has told stories ever since the earliest hieroglyphs and cave paintings. The exhibitions will follow “narrative art” through the technological advancements of the 20th century and into the “digital mediums of the future,” all of which makes narrative sound like it’s on its way to becoming the dominant art form in this country, if it hasn’t achieved that status already.