George Lucas. I had the idea to curate an exhibition made up of iconic television and movie sets like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise from Star Trek, the cantina from Star Wars, or Pee Wee’s Playhouse. I had heard that Paul Reubens had the entire Playhouse in storage, and spent weeks trying to gain access to it, to no avail: he had been traumatized by some bad publicity and withdrawn all references to Pee Wee from public viewing. Then I was told that Paramount was organizing its own Star Trek traveling exhibition: strike two. I was about to give up on the whole idea when my boss happened to be at a dinner event with George Lucas and pitched the idea to him. He graciously and readily agreed. It turned out that a Lucas exhibition had just returned from Japan and was set to go. However, I actually had to start from scratch because the Japanese show was just a fan show, and we wanted something more ambitious. It was great fun if a bit overwhelming. The staff at Skywalker Ranch could not have been more helpful. They gave me unhindered access to their entire archive, including hundreds of original drawings for characters, sets, and costume sketches and all the existing props, matte paintings, costumes, and models from the first three films. I have a photograph of myself in the archive with Alec Guinness’ head under my arm.
Ours was the first American museum show of Lucas’ work, so to place the spectacular nature of the material in context, we did a lot of research into the history of military uniforms and theories of multiculturalism.
When I decided on this show, I was chatting with a colleague at SFMOMA. He hurt me deeply with his response: “I hope you aren’t setting yourself up for corporate interference.” This from someone whose board represented some of the richest corporate figures in the country, and who had just built the new Mario Botta building. YBCA, in contrast, almost never received corporate money, and certainly none from Lucas.
On opening day, we had a line around the block, with many people in costume. SFMOMA was opening its new building at the same time across the street, and we had deliberately chosen to juxtapose the two forms of contemporary exhibition-making.
I was interviewed live on the Today show with Bryant Gumbel. It turned out to be pretty traumatic. Since the show was running live on East Coast time, I had to be at the museum at around five in the morning. When my big national TV moment came, the sound setup malfunctioned, and everything I heard and said echoed a second later in my ear, which was incredibly disorienting. I think I came off as a bit slow; all I remember saying is “Mr. Lucas this” and “Mr. Lucas that” over and over. The interview fizzled, and Gumbel cut to a commercial quickly. I was devastated.
A few weeks later Lucas toured the show. He was incredibly generous. He declined a rental fee and made an appearance at a benefit dinner for the museum, again for free, and without any hint of star attitude. My experience with the show wasn’t so smooth. While we were proud of the installation, Lucas offered not a
word of appreciation. We even commissioned a few artists to make pieces in response to the Star Wars phenomenon, including the future MacArthur “genius” award winner, Carrie Mae Weems. Lucas didn’t care to look at any of it.
The difference between the art world and the world of Hollywood film was a revelation I have never forgotten: we had 120,000 visitors in six weeks, in contrast with our typical annual attendance of 50,000. From then on I always included a thread of popular culture in our exhibitions, for I realized that the demographics of the audience was the most diverse of any show we had mounted before. Down the road we did shows based on Halls of Fame, surfing, bike culture and others, all combining those phenomena with responses from artists.