Chicago’s lakefront museum campus is the recommended spot to house a project with blockbuster box office potential: an interactive museum spearheaded by movie mogul George Lucas to house his formidable collection of artwork and film-making memorabilia.
While a mayoral taskforce has suggested the site, Lucas — the Star Wars mastermind — has not made a final decision about whether Chicago will be home to the museum. Lucas’ hometown of San Francisco remains in the running — even after a federal panel rejected the picturesque Presidio site that was the filmaker’s top choice.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel gave a dozen civic leaders one month to find an accessible site in Chicago that’s large enough to house a museum “comparable to other major cultural institutions” that does not “require taxpayer dollars.”
The marching orders did not rule out building the Lucas Cultural Arts Museum on park district land along the lakefront in a leasing arrangement similar to other lakefront museums. In fact, top mayoral aide David Spielfogel opened the door to that possibility by saying, “We’re not offering taxpayer funds, but we might do a lease like other nonprofits get.”
Late Monday, the task force met with Emanuel to recommend a site that is as certain to delight the movie mogul as it is to stir controversy among lakefront preservationists.
Sources said the panel recommended that the Lucas Museum be built on a parking lot at Chicago’s museum campus alongside the Field Museum, the Shedd Aquarium and the Adler Planetarium.
Sources said the museum campus was chosen after Lucas met privately with the site selection committee to outline his vision for the museum, warehouse, art collection and endowment with a combined value of $1 billion.
The Star Wars creator, who is married to Chicago businesswoman Mellody Hobson, said he wanted his museum to be close to water, enveloped by nature and centrally-located. He talked about enhancing the green space around it by taking much of the museum parking underground.
Lucas’ “must-haves” made the museum campus the logical choice — particularly after Meigs Field and sites under consideration for President Barack Obama’s library and museum were eliminated, sources said.
“This guy really wants to do this [in Chicago]. San Francisco hogtied him that much. And this site really is the best Chicago has to offer,” said a source close to the negotiations.
“You’ve got the Adler, the Shedd and the Field all right there,” the source said. “This would add another crown jewel. You could literally create a one-day super-pass that would allow families with kids to hopscotch from one museum to the other with picnics in between.”
Another source acknowledged that the museum campus site would be controversial as lakefront projects inevitably are. But it represents Chicago’s best chance to fend off stiff competition from Lucas’ home town of San Francisco, the source said.
“He didn’t come in here and say, `I want to re-gentrify a blighted area.’ That’s not what this is about. He wants to be near water and part of nature,” the source said.
“Can you imagine Chicago without the Planetarium or the Shedd? This is another crown jewel. It would be stupid for the city to let a chance at something like this slip away. If you look at that [museum campus] parking lot now, it looks disgusting. This would be a vast improvement.”
Site-selection task force co-chairs — Polk Brothers Foundation CEO Gillian Darlow and Kurt Summers, senior vice-president of Grosvenor Capital Management — could not be reached for comment.
Lucas originally wanted to build the 95,000-square-foot Lucas Cultural Arts Museum on one of the most breathtaking sites in San Francisco: Crissy Field on the Army base-turned-national park known as the Presidio.
But when the trust that oversees the federal land rejected all three proposals for that site in February and its chairwoman criticized the Lucas museum design as “inappropriate” and “too big,” Chicago emerged as a potential front-runner.
Tucked away into a $1 billion bond issue that bankrolled another McCormick Place expansion, the $110 million museum campus was created by moving Lake Shore Drive to the west of the Field Museum.
That allowed pedestrians to enter underneath the drive and walk along the paths and terraced lawns in front of the Field and Shedd. A park was created where northbound Lake Shore Drive used to be.
It was former Mayor Jane Byrne who first proposed uniting the Field Museum, Adler Planetarium and Shedd Aquarium as part of a package of improvements tied to a 1992 World’s Fair.
The World’s Fair never happened, but the museum campus did — 16 years after Byrne first proposed it.
Byrne was not invited to the June 1998 dedication ceremony.
“I’m sort of erased in the minds of some people,” Byrne lamented on that day.
“I saw it all — an expanded O’Hare, the international terminal, the southwest and northwest rapid-transit lines, Navy Pier and the museum campus — all as one colossal coming together of Chicago and opening its arms to the world. . . . It shouldn’t have taken this long.”
Asked on that day whether his political archrival deserved some credit for the museum campus, then-Mayor Richard M. Daley said: “People talk about a lot of things, but how do you put it into action? You have to make decisions. There was no funding. How did you do it? It was through the whole idea of forming that [taxing district] for McPier.”
No matter who got credit, visionary planner Daniel Burnham’s dream of a continuous lakefront park system was enhanced by 17.5 acres. With three new concourses, pedestrians and bike riders finally had direct access to the lakefront, museums and Soldier Field without crossing heavy traffic. No longer was the Field Museum what Daley called “an island isolated by 10 lanes of surging traffic.” Lucas Museum spokesman David Perry has described the project as the “history of storytelling” and the “world’s foremost museum dedicated to the power of the visual image.”
The core of the collection will be “illustrative artwork of the last 150 years,” including works by Norman Rockwell, Maxfield Parrish and Joseph Christian Leyendecker, whose works adorned the covers of the Saturday Evening Post and started Lucas “on his artistic path.”
But the museum will also include cinematic offerings, film design, fashion, special effects, children’s book and comic book illustrations.
In an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times last month, Darlow said she wouldn’t be wasting her time if she thought Chicago was “being used” by Lucas to up the ante in San Francisco.
“He has a strong commitment to working with us and seeing whether we can make something happen here. This is a real effort. The city is serious. He’s serious. And the task force is serious,” she said then.
“When you look at George Lucas’ career and interests, he’s a man who has broken boundaries and discovered and invented things people didn’t think of before. This museum is bound to capture that and be a museum like no other. There aren’t museums looking at digital art and the art of storytelling like this. It’s a fantastic opportunity for Chicago.”