On paper, a futuristic art museum built on Chicago’s lakefront proposed by George Lucas is an easy “yes.” Not only is Lucas one of the most successful filmmakers of his generation, but he and his wife also are billionaire patrons to Rahm Emanuel, the mayor whose public approval ratings have been sinking as fast as the city’s finances. Both need a boost, and a museum promising celebrity, jobs and tax revenue would do the trick.
Yet plans for the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, which Lucas first proposed in San Francisco, have ground to a halt. A citizen’s group for Chicago’s park system says the museum violates a public trust doctrine that prohibits development on the lakefront. A federal judge has allowed its lawsuit to proceed; the city is appealing to have the suit tossed out.
The deeper challenge for Lucas and Emanuel appears to go beyond dusty bylaws. Starting last month, the city has been in full PR mode to convince the public that the museum is essential to Chicago’s stature as a world-class city. Talking points for Emanuel and his senior officials have emphasized jobs (8,000 construction, 700 permanent) and direct and indirect revenue ($120 million yearly). And museum advocates warn Chicago must act now before Lucas changes his mind and takes his art collection elsewhere.
Had Lucas showed up on Chicago’s doorstep during Emanuel’s first term, the hand-wringing at city hall would probably have been much less. But today, amid a presidential campaign season where economic disparity and anger toward government waste are dominant themes, the union between a Hollywood billionaire and a brazen Democratic Party rainmaker is fraught.
The situation in Chicago makes it even more perplexing: Emanuel’s authority as mayor has been crippled by a growing police reform scandal, fights with the teachers union and charges he favors downtown development at the expense of the neighborhoods.
“In a way, what the Lucas museum has done is that it has reinforced in the minds of Emanuel’s critics that he doesn’t really have a sense of what is going on in the city with the issues of social inequity, whether it’s economic, or more broadly, race relations and the police,” says Larry Bennett, a political scientist at DePaul University in Chicago. “He doesn’t get that and he keeps pushing at this other stuff.”
The museum was originally planned to encompass eight acres on Crissy Field, one of San Francisco’s most popular open spaces on national parkland along its oceanfront. But in February 2014, when the public trust board that operated the space asked Lucas to change the building design, saying it exceeded height limits and was too ornamental, the filmmaker pulled out.
Within months he was in Chicago, the hometown of his wife, Mellody Hobson, and a place where the couple wielded political clout. The previous summer, Lucas and Hobson had hosted their wedding reception along the lakefront, but only after the park district circumvented rules that would have prevented them from hosting the lavish, star-studded event. Months later, the couple announced a $25 million contribution to a local after-schools program for children. Hobson, the president of a Chicago-based investment firm, has also donated more than $30,000 to Emanuel’s campaign war chest and is a member of a quasi-public group that shapes his economic strategy.
Lucas, 72, has been collecting art for 40 years, says Don Bacigalupi, the museum’s founding president. He intends to donate “tens of thousands” of artworks to the nonprofit foundation established to operate the museum. “That will be the seed collection” of a growing inventory, Bacigalupi says. The collection is now disbursed throughout the world, in storage, private homes and on loan to other museums. In Chicago, Lucas wants the work displayed throughout 100,000 square feet of gallery space across four levels. Besides the collection, Bacigalupi says he has committed to gifting the construction costs and operating endowment, a combined price tag totaling $1.5 billion.
The museum is unique in that the collection is self-curated under “narrative art,” a term Lucas is using to suggest visual work that incorporates a strong sense of storytelling. The American artists that Lucas collects include Norman Rockwell and Maxfield Parrish, and the museum will culture-hop back and forth in time to include early comic book and cartoon works, animation, photography and filmmaking. Three cinemas will give visitors a chance to screen a classic like “The Wizard of Oz” and then stroll through galleries to view its storyboard, costume designs and other artistic elements used to tell the story.
And, yes, Lucas’s career-defining “Star Wars” franchise will be represented, “but it won’t be a static, stand-alone, permanent part of the museum,” Bacigalupi says.
This kind of solo endeavor, grand in scale and ambitious in scope, isn’t new. Early last century, American tycoons such as railroad magnate Henry Huntington funded museums, like the Huntington in Pasadena, intended to preserve classical works.
Ann Higonnet, an art professor at Barnard College and Columbia University whose book “A Museum of One’s Own: Private Collecting, Public Gift” is a history of private art collections, says contemporary collectors such as Lucas have emerged over the past decade to represent a second wave of wealthy collectors who want to open museums to establish what they consider important American art. In that way, the museum is similar to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark., opened in 2011 by Walmart heiress Alice Walton, or the Rubell Family Collection in Miami, run by founders of the Rubell Hotel chain.
“That first wave of collectors — most of them were collecting art that their whole culture consistently considered to be the one true great art tradition,” Higonnet says. “Whereas what is happening now is there are a lot of different ideas. We’re aware of how many traditions there are in the world so we have a much more plural idea of greatness.” As for Lucas, his collection is not just elevating artists like Rockwell, whom “the art establishment has had a skeptical relationship to,” it also helps frame his personal creative legacy.
Friends of the Park, the advocacy group, says the museum’s plan to build south of Soldier Field is a violation of the city’s public trust doctrine for open space. The group also balks at Emanuel’s plan to hand Lucas a 99-year lease for the land at the cost of only $10. The activists characterize the museum as a freebie of public assets that will directly benefit Lucas but not the city or state residents.
Even though the city insists the museum is not private, the presence of Lucas makes it appear as a vanity project, an argument that provides a basis for the lawsuit.
Higonnet says that both sides are right, describing the Lucas project as a “semi-public and semi-private” partnership, the kind that is often inevitable to keep art in public circulation.
“The bigger scheme of art history across time is that there is a constant cycling of art from one sort of setting to another,” she says. “We’d like to think that really great art comes out of the private domain then goes into this sacred treasure house. In the larger scheme of things, all art is going to keep on circulating because of power.”
Early 20th-century mail-order magnate Aaron Montgomery Ward funded a nearly 20-year court battle to keep the lakefront free of private development after the 1871 Great Chicago Fire, when the lakefront was used as a dumping ground for debris and storage by railway companies and others. “He likened our lakefront to the Bay of Naples and said it should be open to the poor and, if not, it will be gobbled up for the rich,” says Juanita Irizarry, executive director of Friends of the Park. “Our jewel is the lakefront, it’s a big part of our tourism and is what makes Chicago so special. The domino effect of the Lucas museum will be it will open the door up for more development.”
Irizarry’s group is pushing the Lucases to consider other sites near downtown, in areas where there is open space primed for development, but are not on the water. They have refused, says Chicago Deputy Mayor Steve Koch.
“The Lucases had two real requirements: One, it would be in a prominent location and, two, that it would be near other museums,” he says. “The Lucases are not going to go to another site.”
A new plan approved by Lucas involves reconfiguring an aging extension of the McCormick Place convention center that sits on the lake and partially replacing it with the museum, 12 new acres of parkland, in addition to new convention space. That multipurpose site is more complicated because it involves borrowing nearly $1.2 billion and extending five taxes on hotels and more. Because it is co-owned by the state, approval from Springfield is required. With Illinois in a budget deadlock that is nearing a full year, and the state ranked at the bottom of those with underfunded pensions, the timing could not be worse. Koch says the selling point is long-term revenue in taxes and tourism dollars, as well as that it would add to Chicago’s “meaningful group of museums and cultural assets” that make it globally competitive.
“This is both an enormous opportunity to update and modernize McCormick Place,” he says. “It has this element of Lucas, but they are two separate things that would happen to be tied together financially.”
Talks are on hold until the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit rules on a city petition that asks for the lawsuit to be thrown out. Meanwhile, Hobson released a statement calling Friends of the Park “a small special interest group” that has “co-opted and hijacked” the process. “It saddens me that young black and brown children will be denied the chance to benefit from what this museum will offer,” she says.
She added that she and her husband “are now seriously pursuing locations outside of Chicago.” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has already said he would welcome the museum in his city.
If the Lucases leave Chicago, it will ultimately discredit the couple’s statements about wanting to help the children there, park advocates say.
“They keep saying how committed they are to the city, but they’re not committed enough to build anywhere but the lakefront,” Irizarry says.