The Lucas Museum of Narrative Art isn’t coming to Chicago. Mayor Rahm Emanuel is very angry about this. Rahm wants you to think he’s angry because Chicago lost a great opportunity for a new public cultural attraction. He also wants you to think that a small group of killjoys ruined Chicago’s chances to accept a very generous gift from George Lucas, the very same man who very generously gave the world Jar Jar Binks.
I love this story. I love that our bullying mayor and the billionaire behind Howard the Duck could line up the Chicago City Council, the Illinois Legislature, and the Park District, and then get whupped by a troubled advocacy organization, Friends of the Parks. Score a win for the little guys!
Or..the little guys didn’t win, and nobody got beat. Rahm isn’t angry about missed opportunities. Rahm is angry because he needed a win, and he lost. There is one thing our racially divided city agrees on: Rahm sucks. The only thing interrupting news stories about the dire state of our schools are news stories about gun violence and police brutality. He invested his last two ounces of prestige for a legacy project and blew it.
Worse for Rahm, he sided with a raging egomaniac who likes to take his toys and go home. Here’s what got overshadowed in the coverage of the museum: George Lucas, the chinless former wunderkind writer of Willow, quit. Was there a lawsuit to stop the museum? Yes, but it never actually went to trial. All of the legal action in the case was the city trying to get the case dismissed, and a federal judge allowing it to proceed. The city tried to get the case thrown out twice, and then engaged in some extravagant legal tricks to argue that the case shouldn’t be in court in the first place. Chicago is pretty good about keeping things out of court, usually by paying huge settlements to people brutalized by cops. So I guess you could see why Rahm thought this would work.
The mayor and the writer of Captain Eo insist that the case was about Friends of the Parks preserving a parking lot. Who would want to do that? Surprising answer: no one. The mayor wanted to get his 9.5 fingers into lakefront property that is protected as a public trust. Friends of the Parks argued, and the judge agreed, that building the museum would primarily benefit a private entity, namely George Lucas’ Death Star-sized ego in edificial form. It’s not about a parking lot – it’s about preserving the lakefront for public use. And Friends of the Parks hoped that the parking lot could be returned to public use sometime before the 297 year lease on the museum ran out.
Let’s talk about the ego of the man who brought us Strange Magic. Who offers a museum with the huge condition that it be built on a waterfront? Even if you think it was dumb to preserve a parking lot, is it any less dumb to offer to build a museum and be completely inflexible on the location? As the Tribune pointed out “We wonder whether Lucas appreciates the irony that he could hold his 2013 wedding on Promontory Point only because Chicago for nearly two centuries had protected that stretch of lakefront from the kind of development he now demands for himself at another lakefront site.” Not surprisingly, San Francisco rejected this sort of ultimatum, which is why Lucas brought his toys to us in the first place.
Yes, three other museums make up the “campus” on the lakefront, and when the Bears play at home Soldier Field becomes the Museum of Minorities Concussing Themselves. Tiny Dancer said, “museums belong on a museum campus,” apparently forgetting about the non-campused Museum of Science and Industry. And the Art Institute. And the Chicago History Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Chicago Children’s Museum. He really wants to forget about the Chicago Children’s Museum. That museum caused all sorts of controversy when it wanted to move onto public land in Grant Park until – wait for it – it was quashed by Mayor Emanuel in 2012. At the time, he reasoned that it was better to keep the museum in Navy Pier “as a strong pillar in the redevelopment vision” for Chicago’s best place to get shit on by seagulls.
Perhaps Rahm could’ve stuck with this idea for redevelopment when the genius who brought you Tucker: The Man and His Dream came knocking. The mayor could have suggested building the museum on the Michael Reese Hospital site. There are two big advantages there: it’s not far from Lucas’ fantasy site, and the city has owned it for seven years. Just look what we’ve done with it:
The property was bought when Chicago’s previous petit autocrate, Mayor Daley, decided that we really needed the 2016 Summer Olympics. We dodged that bullet, but taxpayers are left holding the bag for the original $91 million plus another $43 million in interest if isn’t sold soon. Instead, Mayor Emanuel came up with a different plan to build the museum on the site of the current McCormick Place. This plan would have required $1.2 billion in state funds. In Illinois. In case you haven’t noticed, state funds in Illinois aren’t easy to come by. And oddly enough, this violated one of the rules of the original site selection committee: that it not cost any money to Chicago taxpayers.
Let’s pretend that Father Michael Pfleger forgot about the $200,000 George Lucas gave his church in 2014 when he questioned the motives of Friends of the Parks. Why not move the museum to a site the city already owns and give a boost to development in area south of downtown for a change? It can’t just be because the idea man behind Red Tails had his heart set on being near the water, can it?
Now that the project is dead, we’re supposed to bow our heads at the lost tourists, tax dollars, and jobs the museum would’ve brought. Boosting tourism, taxes, and jobs sounds a lot like the argument Daley used to hype the Olympics and the one used to build sports stadiums, both of which rarely work out well for cities. First, people have a finite amount of money. The dollars spent buying a replica Hayden Christensen Oscar at the Lucas Museum can’t also be spent on whatever the hell it is you buy at Navy Pier. Second, all the traffic caused by the whimsical Phantom Menace: Racist Alien Caricatures exhibit will probably keep other people from going to the Shedd Aquarium. This is already true: visiting the museum campus is a nightmare during a Bears game. But Soldier Field is a Park District building, and the Bears lease it for $6 million a year. The Park District can use it or lease it out for other things the rest of the time. Chicago could wait until 2313 for the same access to the Lucas Museum.
I’m not the sort of creative genius who could bring you Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, like George Lucas, and 70% of Black Chicagoans don’t think I suck. But I have an idea: what if Rahm redirected all of his docile allies and the cajoling, bullying, and lawyers, into repairing Chicago’s infrastructure and making people less afraid of being shot? I bet tourists would like that. You know who else would like that? Chicagoans. We could also go for having enough police on the streets and having a reasonable expectation that they were accountable. A new museum would be nice; nicer still would be families not fleeing to the cultural desolation of the suburbs because our schools might not open in the fall. It wouldn’t be as visible a legacy as a new museum, but it would be a great story about the failing Mayor who fixed Chicago – the guy I voted for twice. Maybe Rahm could get George Lucas to chip in – the guy wrote an ok story long, long ago.