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L.A.’s Lucas Museum of Narrative Art Is Looking to Change How a Museum Can Be Part of Society

The Lucas Museum of Narrative Art—years in the making in Los Angeles—looks to change how a museum can be a part of society, and what its role might be. “Museums are now sitting on the doorstep of relevance, and they’re trying to figure out how they remain relevant,” said Sandra Jackson-Dumont, who joined the Lucas Museum as director at the beginning of 2020. “I don’t think anyone can assume relevance. The museum of the 21st century, for me, is one that sits in the world, is of world, and is engaged in the world—not one that sits as a box and says it collects the world.”

[See the full list of ARTnews’s “Deciders 2021.”]

Conceived by collector couple George Lucas and Mellody Hobson, the Lucas is one of the most hotly anticipated museums opening anywhere in the world and—at 300,000 square feet (with 100,000 square feet of dedicated exhibition space) plus 11 acres of grounds—one of the largest. Because of the pandemic, the Lucas has not officially announced an opening date. But Jackson-Dumont made a bold statement about the museum’s direction in July when she named six women (five being people of color) as her first key hires to senior leadership positions.

“We’re up against a long history of institutional practice and a long history of people not feeling like they can be in institutions,” said Amanda Hunt, the museum’s director of public programs and creative practice. “That’s something I’ve always hoped to break open. We are building something anew; we are part of that long arc and dialogue—but how can we do that differently?”

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Genevieve Gaignard, Trav’lin Light, 2020.
Courtesy Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, Los Angeles

Part of what Jackson-Dumont and her team aim to build is the idea of the Lucas as an institution that places its audience at the core of everything it does. “We want to be a people-first organization,” she said. “We want to meet people wherever they are—physically, intellectually, emotionally—and we want to be inclusive in a way that connects with who people are in their daily lives and what matters to them. That should be reflected in the work that we do and the work that we show.”

As for what the museum will offer its visitors, she added, “I like to say that someone may come for Star Wars but leave loving Kara Walker—the idea of how the mass image can expand art history in many ways.”

The Lucas Museum will take up a home within a very specific context in Exposition Park, a neighborhood in South L.A. that is primarily Latinx and Black, and that is surrounded by other cultural institutions, as well as the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and the University of Southern California. “When a concert or a soccer game lets out, that’s letting out with us, so we should be programming with them,” Jackson-Dumont said. “We’re creating a space for the culture that already exists in L.A. to thrive.”

The museum collection also continues to grow. Started from a seed collection from Lucas and Hobson that ranges widely from 16th-century paintings to contemporary art and includes various forms of material culture, the institution has been adding work of different kinds to fill in gaps and focus on certain areas and artists in more depth.

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Henri Cartier-Bresson, Kabuki Actor’s Funeral, 1965.
Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, Los Angeles/© Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos.

“Some of that material might draw in audiences who aren’t traditionally museumgoers,” said Pilar Tompkins Rivas, the museum’s chief curator and deputy director of curatorial and collections. “We want to, from the outset, think broadly across the different types of work in the collection and … about the multiplicity of vantage points and how we’re trying to shape conversations that push and expand the canon of art history outward.”

Tompkins Rivas said the curatorial team will look to create exhibitions that are intersectional and inclusive of a variety of experiences. The museum’s focus on narrative art will be expansive, she said, and will look at the “power of images” and how they “function in society at large.”

Along those lines, Jackson-Dumont said, “almost every artist we can think of has some history with the narrative form—even within abstraction there is narrative form in many cases. How has narrative art cut across time and place? The definition is something that we feel can expand and contract.”

Speaking more broadly to the museum’s aims, Jackson-Dumont said, “we want to be a complex institution that reflects the complexities of society. What does it mean to have a place dedicated to complexities? We have to be nimble. We have to behave differently.”

A version of this article appears in the Winter 2021 issue of ARTnews, under the title “Deciders 2021.”

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