It was perhaps expected: in the face of considerable opposition, a relentless civic organization, a pesky lawsuit, and a sympathetic judge, filmmaker George Lucas has decided to pull his Lucas Museum of Narrative Art out of Chicago. This outcome had been brewing for weeks and doesn’t come as a great surprise to close observers there.
I don’t live in Chicago, so I don’t know whether Lucas’s decision is a good or bad long-term development for the city. In the short run, it’s clearly an economic blow, since the filmmaker was prepared to spend more than $700 million to build the museum. For me, observing the public process in Chicago—or, more accurately here, the lack of an authentic public process on the part of Lucas and his organization—was endlessly interesting, and made for great political theater.
As the estimable Blair Kamin wrote on Sunday, for a group that wanted to build a large civic building on a site with significant civic importance, Lucas’s organization did almost everything wrong. They didn’t meet with community groups; they didn’t talk to the media; they conducted a public relations campaign that was as arrogant and aloof as it was ineffective. They played to racial and class fears, claiming that “elitists” were threatening to deprive underprivileged kids of future educational opportunities provided by the museum. And when it became clear that a lawsuit challenging the museum’s lakefront site might delay the project, they dug in their heels, refusing to consider other sites (even though a lot of people, from the mayor on down, were attempting to make that happen). As far as Lucas & Co were concerned, it was take-it or leave-it.
Still, the biggest loser in all this might be Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
To put the mayor’s role in perspective, it’s helpful to recall what led up to it. Lucas had previously failed to secure a site for his museum on a gorgeous spot in San Francisco, in the Presidio. There, Lucas proposed a much different architectural vision: a Beaux-Arts inspired building seemingly created to stir as little design controversy as possible. Lucas was savvy enough to realize that a provocative design statement, in a national park, wouldn’t fly, so he resorted to what he perceived as a path-of-least-resistance approach. Ironically, that design failed for pretty much the same reason a radically different scheme failed two years later in Chicago: it involved a once-in-a-lifetime site that many in the community considered a shared asset. Sound familiar?
When plans to develop the Presidio site were shelved, Lucas went looking for a new city. Enter Rahm Emanuel. Lucas found an eager suitor in the mayor, who offered up a lakefront site in Grant Park and a sweetheart lease. And clearly the mayor provided Lucas something else, too, something the filmmaker was very accustomed to receiving in Hollywood, but certainly didn’t get in San Francisco: brash creative freedom. (A pleasantly balanced, crisply symmetrical Beaux-Arts box from the creator of Star Wars always struck me as a tad…schizophrenic.) And judging from the scheme he cooked up with Ma Yansong of MAD Architects—a mammoth “building-scape” that some compared to Space Mountain and I thought was actually worse than that, pure kitsch—it certainly looked as if Mayor Emanuel had given Lucas and his architects an aesthetic blank check.
A huge, seven-level 400,000-square-foot building, shaped like an alien land mass—why not? On the lakefront? Who could possibly object to that? And even if they did, George had about three-quarter-billion dollars and the backing of the almighty mayor. Backroom deals like this always prevail in Chicago.
Except, of course, when they don’t—which is, truth be told, almost never. It’s why I’m so encouraged by this unlikely turn of events. I’m thrilled that it’s still even possible for a pesky (and demonized) citizen’s group to upset the best-laid plans of a billionaire filmmaker, a headstrong mayor, and the entire political establishment of both the city of Chicago and the state of Illinois. For the Windy City, and actually for cities everywhere, this is a healthy precedent.
As for Lucas, he is reportedly in negotiations with the city of San Francisco for a site on Treasure Island in the bay. Eventually he will find a home for this museum, and who knows, it might actually be good. Lucas certainly knows how to engage and enthrall audiences. What he doesn’t seem to do, at all, is listen.
Featured image: the proposed scheme for the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, designed by Ma Yansong and MAD Architects.