Nostalgic, Yet Modern: Behind the George Lucas Family Foundation's Latest Give

Upon reading news that his foundation recently gave $1.5 million to the Stockbridge, MA-based Norman Rockwell Museum, I wondered if George Lucas had a minor epiphany. Maybe he figured it's much easier to cut a check than deal with the legal, logistical, and quasi-imperial entanglements involved with building a museum from scratch.

After all, the gift comes a few months after officials at the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art announced they are no longer considering Chicago as a site for the museum and that California will be the project's future home. According to the LA Times, the museum cited "extensive delays" caused by legal action brought by Friends of the Parks, a Chicago activist group that opposed Lucas' attempts to construct his museum on sites near the shores of Lake Michigan.

So while museum planning continues on the West Coast, Lucas, through his George Lucas Family Foundation, is keeping the money flowing as a good old fashioned arts benefactor.

We haven't written that much about Lucas's arts philanthropy, even as we have covered his important doings in education, which have focused on reinventing how kids learn. But in the arts, too, Lucas and his wife Mellody Hobson are up to some interesting things with their philanthropy. 

Related: Light Years Ahead: How George Lucas Has Been a Pioneer in K-12 Philanthropy

The three-year grant to the Norman Rockwell Museum will enable the museum to create multi-media experiences on site, online, and for traveling exhibitions. More to the point, the museum will embrace mobile technology, allowing visitors to experience "augmented reality" using their smart phones.

Sound familiar? It should. We explored this strategy for boosting audience engagement not so long time ago on a blog not too far away. (Apologies are in order. Under the international code for blogging, Section IX 3.23 clearly states: "Any reference to George Lucas must have at least two Star Wars allusions, no matter how painfully awkward.") Specifically, way back in 2014 we noted how Bloomberg Philanthropies made a bet on mobile devices. Since then, recipients like the Brooklyn Museum have rolled out nifty apps to help boost the visitor experience.

And so Lucas' foundation's gift to the Rockwell museum neatly fits into a kind of technology maturity spectrum. Funders like Bloomberg channel their inner venture capitalist and a bet on a promising technology. A few years later, a product hits the market where users work out the kinks. Enter "laggards"—and I certainly don't mean that in a pejorative sense—who step in and utilize what is now a mature technology.

To that end, the Rockwell Museum's Manager of Media Services Jeremy Clowe says the efforts make its collection more accessible and engaging. The Norman Rockwell Archive has more than 100,000 photographs, letters and other items related to the famed Saturday Evening Post illustrator. "To be able to take people back in time to when these works were created and it’s just another layer to make it a much more rich experience," said Clowe. The museum also plans to create a new K thru 12 curriculum and an online media hub with podcasts, interviews, and lectures.  

Which brings us back to Lucas. (Click here for the full IP donor profile.) According to the museum, the filmmaker is an avid collector of Rockwell's artwork. His foundation's recent gift comes on the heels of a previous $500,000 give has supported the museum’s multimedia efforts over the past two years.

Indeed, it seems as if Baby Boomer Lucas is a fan of many things that you could call nostalgically American. His Star Wars films famously borrowed from the pre-World War II comic strip Flash Gordon, while his first 1973 film American Graffiti was a coming-of-age comedy-drama taking place in 1962 that celebrated the teenage innocence of the post-war rock n' roll years.

And therein lies the beauty of the Rockwell gift. Just like Star Wars modernized an old comic strip and American Graffiti viewed hot rod adolescence through a contemporary lens, Lucas's gift will make the work of an American painter born in the 19th century relevant to a new generation of visitors using mature digital technology. 

For recent IP coverage around what is perhaps Lucas' biggest cause, K-12 philanthropy, click here, here, and here.