Chicago a frontrunner for George Lucas’ Star Wars museum

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Mayor Rahm Emanuel is making a strong pitch to lure a $1 billion investment: a first-of-its-kind, interactive museum and warehouse spearheaded by movie mogul George Lucas to house his formidable collection of artwork and filmmaking memorabilia.

The Star Wars creator — who is married to Chicago businesswoman Mellody Hobson — 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 move and Chicago emerged as a potential frontrunner.

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“George felt very strongly that he didn’t want to have Chicago spinning its wheels while the Presidio was the only option on the table. But after the emphatic decision in February, George said, `Chicago has approached us and we’re going to speak seriously with them.’ And that’s when we started speaking seriously,” said Lucas Museum spokesman David Perry.

“The mayor’s office has said, `We are very interested in finding a possible site for you in Chicago.’ George is very excited that Chicago understands the educational and philanthropic gift this museum represents. This is a gift of philanthropy worth well over $1 billion considering the art, warehouse, museum and future endowment heretofore made by Carnegie, Mellon, Rockefeller and Smithson. We are looking for Chicago to tell us where they would like us to be.”

David Spielfogel, a senior adviser to the mayor, said it’s too soon to say where the museum would be located or whether it would be on park district land similar to the arrangement the city has with other lakefront museums.

“We’re not offering taxpayer funds, but we might do a lease like other non-profits get,” he said.

“The hope is that, over the next two months, we can engage the public to find the right location. We’re in a very strong position to make a very competitive proposal.”

Spielfogel argued that Chicago “offers things that no other city in America can offer” to Lucas, in part, because of Emanuel’s “commitment to education and innovation.” What does the museum offer Chicago?

“It’s an incredible science, technology and educational institution. And, as part of our effort to elevate Chicago on the national and international level, it will be a tremendous draw for tourists and other visitors,” he said.

Perry described Chicago as a “very, very serious contender but not the only contender.” He also made it clear that San Francisco is still in the running after offering an alternative, less desirable site.

Lucas’ decision on where to locate the museum does not depend on free land, he said.

“This museum is completely self-funded, period. It will be built, funded and endowed by George Lucas. We don’t need anything but permission to build a museum that would be a jewel in the crown of any city’s offering. Actually, it would be a whole new crown,” Perry said.

Perry 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 pieces 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,” Perry said.

But the museum will also include cinematic offerings, film design, fashion, special effects, children’s book and comic book illustrations.

“It will be the most interactive museum ever built,” Perry said.

In a video prepared for presentation to the Presidio Trust, Lucas described the museum as a family attraction.

“No matter how young somebody is, they can relate to the paintings and, no matter how old you are, you can relate to the paintings,” the filmmaker said.

“Kids are able to do pictures and illustrations using digital art. So, a museum that shows you how much you can actually do — for me, having grown up with this whole thing — it’s amazing.”

In San Francisco, the museum itself was pegged as a 95,000-square-foot project with a price tag of $300 million, largely because so much of the art work was stored somewhere else. In Chicago, the project would include a museum and warehouse with a price tag approaching $1 billion, including the value of the art and future endowment.

Last summer, Lucas married Hobson at a star-studded wedding on Promontory Point that closed the park for a day, put the field house out of commission for a week and bent the rules in exchange for a $100,000 rental fee. In December, Lucas and Hobson made a $25 million gift to After School Matters, the award-wining arts and education program chaired by Hobson and founded by Chicago’s former First Lady Maggie Daley.

“Chicago’s commitment to culture, architecture, innovation and young people’s education is second to none. We’re considering Chicago because of Chicago’s commitment to all those things,” Perry said.

“Chicago is George Lucas’ second home and, most important, Chicago came to us and said, `We’d love to have you here.’ It’s nice to be asked.”

In the video pitch to San Francisco, Lucas was singing a different tune. He said then that the museum belonged in his hometown.

“This is the home of digital art. We have [Industrial Light & Magic], who pioneered digital art, Pixar, Dreamworks. So, we have a lot of digital artists in this area who we can use for educational purposes to help come in teach classes for kids and help them work with digital art,” he said.

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