When Your Environmental Allies Lose the Lucas Museum Forest Through the Endor Trees
Back to you, California. Just as the LA Times wrote last weekend: “George Lucas abandons Chicago, will build new museum in California.”
The attitudes in Chicago against the Lucas Museum are among the most short-sighted (yes, I’m saying building on the lakefront is short-sighted), anti-democratic, unyielding, illogical, and frankly imbalanced I’ve ever seen in my time in Chicago. Why don’t people just admit they’re against anything Rahm Emanuel or rich people may want? Even when what they want serves the public benefit to the tune of more than 1,500 jobs (even half of that # would be great), 800 trees planted in an under-utilized space, and nearly a $1 billion in architectural and narrative art investment (by Lucas) that children and adults will enjoy for generations. This was all a net gain. We in Chicago lost.
Who else approved the “contentious” location in front of Northerly Island (human-made) and Burnham Harbor, home to hundreds of docked yachts and boats? Only those government bodies and individuals we elect or are answerable to elected officials: The City Council, Park District, Plan Commission, Department of Zoning, Illinois General Assembly and the governor. It was also endorsed by 10 Chicago museum directors who called the Lucas Museum “a potential philanthropic gift of historic proportions.” A majority of the city’s residents want it, according to all polls I’ve seen from 2014 to 2016.
Let’s be clear: It’s an arts museum. That would have been built on Chicago’s Museum Campus. At no cost to taxpayers, if the original parking lot site is chosen. And there’s a long history of American cities giving away land for civic institutions serving the public good.
However, one group wants to overrule them all: The 2000-member “Friends of the Parks” who have previously opposed the Obama library being on Chicago Park District lands (and lost). Ditto Soldier Field renovations in 2003. These previous legal losses and concessions indicate the parks and the lakefront don’t necessarily need to serve a narrow “never build” purpose, which is the hardline “environmental” stance this unelected body takes. Despite all the legalese I’ve racked my brain around, I’ll concede the Park District and mayor’s office aren’t consistently the most forthcoming in the legal process —the steps to the would-be marriage of Lucas’ legacy with Chicago could be construed as secretive, I suppose. Many gripe that Lucas hasn’t done meet ‘n greets and opened the doors to his art collection and full outlay of his plans beyond his PR-by-the-book website (lucasmuseum.org). I guess I have a bit more faith that those stakeholders close to the process know what benefits the city would have received. Even L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti said in a statement on Friday that Lucas’ museum “would be perfect for Los Angeles. Tens of millions of people visit our city every year — and L.A. has unquestioned stature as a world arts capital, thanks to institutions like the Broad, the Getty, MOCA and LACMA.”
Now they get a chance to get it, unless they deal with an equally secretive group whose last-minute actions amount to “extortion” according to the Park District Board President Jesse Ruiz. Ruiz added his contempt towards the Friends of the Park on June 19: “Your uncoordinated effort and the leaked list of ill-informed demands unfortunately make clear that Friends of the Parks has no coordinated effort and no interest in actually resolving this issue.”
As for the building itself, yes, some people aren’t thrilled. But I find many in Chicago possess reactionary misgivings towards design, as well as an overly critical eye towards architecture, in general. This is not unlike Seattle’s Frank Gehry designed “Experience Music Project,” where I also ran counter to the prevalent NIMBYsm and auto-hater misgivings of peers about anything built by a billionaire, no matter how ground-breaking. I would hope people could just view the curvy design with an open mind. And if they really don’t like the building or concept, perhaps naysayers could focus instead on how gorgeous the landscaping is around it. They could use their imagination beyond coming up with new ways to say “eyesore” and consider, perhaps, picnicking on a grassy knoll for free and staring out beyond the shoreline — which, again, is a human-formed harbor filled with leisure boats, not exactly scenic beauty. Do they or any other of the numerous buildings on park land represent “organic architecture”?
Alas, we won’t see it. And because of an environmental principle, I understand that. From my meager perch as an outsider and 12-year Chicago resident, reading a multitude of arguments, I see some people committed to their interpretation of the public trust doctrine — which Friends of the Parks have tried to invoke before and lost. They love to quote Daniel Burnham, sometimes incorrectly (he never said the lakefront should remain “forever open, clear, and free”). Fine. Then let’s talk about the 11 other museums on Chicago parks land and send them into legal limbo. No? Is that too far? We’ve also seen Friends of the Parks lose legal battles against Soldier Field improvements and its long-term lease — and that stadium is certainly going to be sitting on “the lakefront” for another 50 to 100 years hosting Guns ‘n Roses concerts and Bears games. Which begs the question: What benefits the public more, Axl Rose pretending to like Slash in front of 60,000 roaring fans, or a digital classroom for kids? The courts already said the former.
The only difference between the other large buildings on the Museum Campus is Lucas will fund and maintain control of the museum. But the attitude against it treats it like a “Star Wars” theme park or a business. It’s not. Typically, these museums and civic institutions need donors to stay afloat. Back in the day, it was it was “common practice in the past for governments to give new museums public lands to build upon, with the idea that museums are for the public’s benefit.” Now, it’s deemed problematic and nefarious.
Frankly, I see many brains that are excellent at creating arbitrary stop signs (i.e. all the weak arguments I keep hearing, most wrapped up in snark and predictable anti-authority rhetoric, i.e. “billionaire vanity projects”). This is in opposition to open mindsets that are OK green-lighting public works that will benefit people. It’s not just about what Lucas and Rahm want. If the creator of the most successful film franchises in history wants to gift a city a museum — and who wants it to be successful — I can very much understand that he’d prefer it on the 57-acre Museum Campus, Chicago’s geographical and cultural cornerstone familiar to tourists worldwide. And if his vision was for this unique piece of architecture to be on a lakefront, and the mayor and other governing bodies say “OK” to it, then I don’t know how Lucas can be painted as difficult.
Everyone took their positions, and made their decisions. Lucas just made his: I will have it next to water elsewhere. We will continue to have 18 miles of mostly unfettered lakefront, except for that area between McCormick place and Navy Pier, where two museums, Soldier Field and numerous boat docks exist. All of which are going nowhere.
I agree with Rev. Michael L. Pfleger (played by John Cusack in Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq) when he says, “ It is unacceptable that a group of unelected, unaccountable elites [Friends of the Parks] have the temerity to stand up and say they speak on behalf of our city’s ‘public trust.’ … Storytelling is an important part of my calling. Stories connect people. This museum is merely a celebration of that art.”
It’s more than Normal Rockwell paintings and Star Wars memorabilia. It’s a full tilt exploration of cinematic and digital arts that would put this NYC movie museum I’m seeing this week to shame, Museum of the Moving Image. I went there last July, and while it did have a Chewbacca costume, it also gave me an “immersive virtual reality” experience that blew my mind, and provided a rich education on more than 100 years of film & TV production history.
I admit a bias, but this is about something bigger than me being a fan of Star Wars. The creator of Harry Potter or Game of Thrones — both culturally significant phenomenons I don’t watch — could be investing in a museum with the same scope and aims, and I’d be 100% for it. Because I’m “for” the logic of “the greater good” more than my own bias. (Sorry, I couldn’t even sit through 15 minutes of “Game of Thrones” last night, but one does have to “invest” the time to understand narrative arts … Or a museum’s purpose.) And heck, I’ve never voted for Rahm, or any incumbent mayor the past dozen years. It doesn’t mean I want them to fail at every turn or give a knee-jerk negative reaction to every decision the Chicago mayor makes. That’s exactly like what some Republicans overtly said (“unified resistance”) at the beginning of President Obama’s first term, and the GOP has collectively obstructed Obama at every turn, no matter if it hurt the country or not.
A Chicago Tribue poll showed 6 in 10 Chicagoans said they’d likely to attend the narrative arts museum. Most Chicagoans did not support the Friends of the Parks lawsuit and were fine with it on the lakefront, i.e. where a Soldier Field parking lot now resides. Instead of something, we have nothing. This is what “purist ideology” gets you.