Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Wednesday gave a dozen civic leaders until mid-May to find an “accessible” site for a project with huge tourism potential: an interactive museum spearheaded by movie mogul George Lucas to house his formidable collection of artwork and filmmaking memorabilia.
The task force — co-chaired by Polk Brothers Foundation CEO Gillian Darlow and Kurt Summers, senior vice-president of Grosvenor Capital Management — is working on a tight time frame with clear marching orders from the mayor.
Find a site “accessible” to all Chicago neighborhoods that’s large enough to host a museum “comparable to other major cultural institutions,” but does not “require taxpayer dollars.”
That does not eliminate the possibility of building the Lucas Cultural Arts Museum on Chicago Park District land, possibly along the lakefront, in a leasing arrangement similar to the one the city has with other lakefront museums.
Top mayoral aide David Spielfogel specifically mentioned that as a possibility last week, adding, “We’re not offering taxpayer funds, but we might do a lease like other nonprofits get.”
But, if the task force does make that controversial recommendation, it will be done after what City Hall promised would be “robust public input” and only after the panel explores “possible investments by the museum to enhance surrounding public space.”
Darlow said her goal is to find a site where students from across the city can come, “get engaged and interact.” The location also needs to “fit well within the cultural mosaic” created by the “phenomenal” museums Chicago already has, she said.
“It needs to be accessible. That’s one of the primary criteria we’ll be using. We want it to be somewhere everybody can get to,” she said.
The task force will be staffed pro bono by the Civic Consulting Alliance. But, Darlow denied that the search is starting with a list of potential sites or a predetermined favorite.
“We want to be open to good ideas out there,” she said. “George Lucas is interested in this being a significant cultural institution somewhat comparable to the larger institutions we have in town. But, there is no specific acreage. It could go higher versus wider. The footprint could be different at different sites. We’re trying not to be limited by that.”
Whatever site is ultimately recommended, Darlow does not believe it will be a tough sell.
“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,” she said.
Lucas is the renowned creator of Star Wars who is married to Chicago businesswoman Mellody Hobson.
He originally wanted to build the 95,000-square-foot Lucas Cultural Arts Museum on one of the most breathtaking sites in his home town of 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,” Emanuel made his pitch and Chicago emerged as a potential front-runner.
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.
San Francisco is still in the running after offering an alternative, less desirable site. So are other cities.
But, Darlow said, “I wouldn’t be doing this if I thought we were 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,” said Darlow, who has talked to Lucas about the project.
“This is a real effort. The city is serious. He’s serious. And the task force is serious.”
Other task force members include: Shedd Aquarium President and CEO Ted Beattie; Walter Massey, president of the School of the Art Institute; renowned architect Jeanne Gang; Chicago Federation of Labor President Jorge Ramirez; Cultural Affairs and Special Events Commissioner Michelle Boone and Park District chief-of-staff Gia Biagi.
The panel also includes: Lee Bey, special projects manager at the University of Chicago; Nilda Esparza, director of youth and cultural programming at Latinos Progresando; former Ald. Mary Ann Smith (48th) and Jackie Samuel of Claretian Associates.