Chicago wins battle for Lucas Museum

By Managing Editor

Sarah Pilotte, a sophomore business & entrepreneurship major, said she became a fan of “Star Wars” creator George Lucas’ work as a child when her parents sat her down to watch the series, but as she got older, she developed a deeper fondness for his ability to tell human stories through wildly imaginative storylines.

“It shows humanity in a different setting,” Pilotte said. “The world [Lucas] created is so realistic and complex, and that shows what a great mind [he] has and what he’s capable of creating. I would be interested in seeing how that ties into other areas of entertainment.”

Pilotte also participates in the 501st Legion, a charity that creates movie-quality “Star Wars” costumes to promote philanthropy and volunteerism among “Star Wars” enthusiasts.

Fans like Pilotte may recall endless hours spent playing with lightsabers in their childhood, but for many the memorabilia carries a greater significance. The saga has inspired millions, and Chicago may become home to an institution dedicated to education in the art of narrative storytelling and celebrating the art of cinematography by 2018.

Chicago’s long-standing reputation as a world-renowned museum city could be strengthened after the acceptance of a recent proposal that the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art—a cultural and educational museum that will feature the personal collections of the filmmaker join the city’s 57-acre Museum Campus, home to the Field Museum, Adler Planetarium and the Shedd Aquarium.

While the visual appeal of a lakefront location may seem ideal, green space advocates and environmentalists are voicing concerns about lakefront and park space preservation, as well as potentially harmful substances in the soil along the lakefront that could be problematic if unearthed during construction.

The museum is set to be built on the site of the parking lots north of McCormick Place Lakeside and south of Soldier Field near the lakefront. The proposed site was chosen from a group of 57 prospective locations selected by a 12-member task force assembled by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, according to the Mayor’s Task Force Report. The report is a detailed recommendation from the task force to the mayor developed after the group received input from public forums and analyzed city data to evaluate the suggested locations.

The proposed locations had to meet specific criteria, including accessibility to all Chicagoans and tourists, a large enough plot of land to support the construction and equipment, a setting fit for an “iconic structure” and—most importantly—a site that would not require the use of any Chicago taxpayer dollars, according to the Task Force Report.

To make way for the museum, the Chicago Bears’ current parking lots will be relocated underground, allowing the Lucas Museum to lie atop the newly constructed garages. The model would enable the restoration of park space and other green spaces in the surrounding open area. 

However, green space advocates Friends of the Parks have taken a firm stance against the lakefront location.

“It’s a wonderful museum, and we’d absolutely love to see it come to Chicago—it’s the site that we oppose,” said Cassandra Francis, president of Friends of the Parks. “The site is a public open space that’s governed by the Lakefront Protection Ordinance, which specifically precludes any future private development east of Lake Shore Drive.”

Friends of the Parks claims building the museum on the proposed lakefront site violates the Lakefront Protection Ordinance—a city ordinance designated to preserve and protect Lake Michigan, the lakefront and lakefront parks— and that harmful substances such as potentially carcinogenic ashes from the Chicago Fire of 1871 could be concealed beneath the concrete. 

Francis said she thinks the site selection process was too quick and left unanswered questions regarding the adjacent infrastructure that will support the museum. She added that she does not think the decision on the location of the museum is final, and if the city continues to pursue the Museum Campus location, Friends of the Parks will take action.

“That site is directly against our mission and we do intend to litigate if the site does move forward,” Francis said.

She also said Friends of the Parks would support the museum being developed at an alternative location such as the truck marshaling parking lot site at McCormick Place Lakeside at 2301 S. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, which was among the 57 locations discussed early on. According to the report, the location was not chosen because of its distance from the Museum Campus.

A spokeswoman for the Lucas Foundation declined to comment on possible litigation with Friends of the Parks or any other groups that are against the proposed lakefront location.

Despite these groups’ opposition, Emanuel and the Lucas Foundation have shown no signs of reconsidering the lakefront site.

Emanuel expressed his support for the museum in a June 24 statement declaring that the Lucas Museum would sit alongside other iconic Museum Campus institutions.

“George Lucas has revolutionized the art of storytelling over the last four decades and we are honored to be the recipient of this incredible legacy investment that will allow everyone to learn about and experience narrative arts,” Emanuel said. “Like Marshall Field, John G. Shedd and Max Adler before him, George’s philanthropy will inspire and educate for generations.”

The Mayor’s Press Office and the Chicago Department of Public Health did not return several requests for comment on the potential environmental concerns regarding the lakefront location for the Lucas Museum.

A principle concern of environmentalists’ is that the museum will reduce the green park space near the lake. According to the Chicago Park District website, there are currently 580 existing parks in the city with a total of 8,100 acres of green space. The Lucas Museum will be built on a 17-acre site, allowing for a five-acre museum that would leave the remaining 12 acres for additional green spaces and general park space, according to the Task Force Report.

Although there are still concerns that harmful substances may be lying dormant under the current parking lots at the lakefront site, those concerns could be quelled by an environmental cleanup—a common practice in Chicago whenever old city buildings are demolished to make way for newer structures. Lucas would also fund this process, as he has promised to fund all construction and operations costs for the museum, according to the Task Force Report.

In 2013, the city saw a 4 percent increase in tourism from the previous year, with more than 48 million visitors flocking to Chicago. Of those 48 million tourists, at least 10 million are attracted to the city’s museums every year, according to the Task Force Report.

The Lucas Museum is expected to contribute to the local economy by bringing in $2–2.5 billion to local businesses through tourist spending and generate $120–160 million in new tax revenue for Chicago in its first 10 years of operation. Additional city revenue is expected to come through increased hotel, gas and retail sales as well, according to the Task Force Report. The construction of the museum would also create about 1,500–2,500 temporary construction jobs with an anticipated $125–200 million going to construction wages. There are approximately 15,000 unemployed construction workers in Chicago and roughly 30,000 unemployed construction workers throughout Cook County, according to the Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership, and the construction of the Lucas Museum would add 350–400 long-term jobs with positions paying $280–330 million in wages in its first 10 years.

The architectural team that will design the museum was announced July 28 in a press release from the Lucas Museum. The principal designer for the museum is MAD Architects, an architectural firm based in Beijing. Studio Gang, an architectural firm based in Chicago and headed by Jeanne Gang, will plan the landscape surrounding the museum and design a bridge that will connect the museum to Northerly Island. VOA Associates, also a Chicago-based firm, was selected to be the executive architect for the museum and will be in charge of implementing MAD Architect’s design for the building itself. Lucas voiced his excitement regarding the architectural team in the July 28 press release.

“We are bringing together some of the top architects in the world to ensure that our museum experience begins long before a visitor ever enters the building,” Lucas said in the release. “I am thrilled with the architectural team’s vision for the building and the surrounding green space. I look forward to presenting our design to the Chicago community.”

According to the press release, Chicagoans will get a glimpse of the design for the museum sometime in late 2014.

Beyond the potential economic contributions the museum could bring to Chicago, there is also the focus on the arts and education that Lucas himself encourages.

Bruce Sheridan, chair of the Cinema Art + Science Department at Columbia, said that Lucas’ influence on cinematography has been discussed in nearly every class he has taught or observed.

“George is a complete filmmaker—he’s a director, he’s a producer, he’s an inventor,” Sheridan said. “He’s the whole package, and I think students pick this up really quickly.”

Sheridan also said that when the book “George Lucas’s Blockbusting” was published in 2010, he was sent an advanced copy with a letter from Lucas asking if Columbia wanted to use the book. Sheridan said that he now encourages all of his producing students to use the book.

“The hardest thing to teach young filmmakers is how even though the business is broken into all these specializations, it only works when good leaders bring it all together,” Sheridan said. “Whether you like a particular film of Lucas’ or not, I don’t think anyone would dispute that he’s trying to do the whole thing—[he’s] not just interested in the technology or just interested in one aspect of it.”

Sheridan said he expects that the museum’s proposed educational programs will serve as a great resource for film students at Columbia and throughout the city.

“We’re the biggest film school in the United States and one of the most prestigious, and we know that film education doesn’t start with us or finish with us,” Sheridan said. “One of my key strategies is to connect with external entities that can bridge between what [students are] doing before they get here, what they do here and what they do after. George’s museum is just a perfect mechanism for that.”

Although all of the contents of Lucas’ personal art collection are not yet public, he has collected works by artist Norman Rockwell and collaborated with fellow filmmaker Steven Spielberg to facilitate an exhibition of Rockwell’s paintings at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in 2010. 

Most recently, the George Lucas Family Foundation donated $500,000 to the Norman Rockwell Museum in a two-year grant to improve educational programming at the Massachusetts location, according to an Aug. 6 Norman Rockwell Museum press release.

The Lucas Museum website reveals that the museum’s seed collection will consist of American artwork Lucas has collected.

“The foundational collection will continue to grow and evolve as the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art acquires more works,” the website stated.

One of Lucas’ objectives for the museum is to enrich the city’s arts scene and add to the depth of arts education at schools and colleges in the city, according to the report. 

Lucas said he intends to increase the awareness and appreciation of narrative arts and storytelling through programs and exhibitions that will integrate aspects of both art and science, and has voiced that the museum staff could work with CPS teachers to inspire them to incorporate various facets of the arts into their curriculum, according to the Task Force Report.

Although the leadership for the museum has yet to be finalized, Richard Lariviere, president and CEO of the Field Museum, said he looks forward to working with the museum in the future.   

“There is collaboration among the existing museums now, and I fully expect that there will be even more collaboration with the Lucas Museum precisely because of George Lucas’ interest in investment in education,” Lariviere said. “The inherent interest of the topic of narrative arts is a great addition to the city of Chicago.”

Lariviere also said he expects that the addition of the museum to Chicago will necessitate that common challenges faced on the Museum Campus such as landscaping and modifying transportation to ease traffic build-up will be addressed.

“The catalyst of an exciting new museum like this will help us all focus on resolving some of those issues,” Lariviere said. 

Lisa Miner, a spokeswoman for the Museum of Science and Industry, also welcomed the museum’s future presence along the lakefront.

“Chicago is a world-class, innovative city that draws millions from around the globe, so it’s a natural fit for Mr. Lucas to build his museum here,” Miner said in a statement. “We’re thrilled for Lucas, the city of Chicago and the museum-going public.”