George Lucas and His Ridiculous Vanity Museum on Chicago’s Lakefront

George Lucas

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has recently announced plans for the construction of George Lucas’ ridiculous vanity, Lucas Museum of Narrative Art (LMNA) on a 17-acre site on Chicago’s lakefront. How is it possible that a museum dedicated to narrative art in American illustration and cinema could have George Lucas’ name on it? True, George Lucas is the brilliant director and producer of the beloved Star Wars franchise (now partially owned by Disney). True, George Lucas has fundamentally reshaped American film by forever marrying commercialism and Hollywood productions. But now California native Lucas is a narrative art “revolutionary” worthy of having a multi-million dollar art museum named after him in Chicago? Cough. If Star Wars is the example of Lucas’ revolutionary narrative art, the place should be called the Huge-Narrative-Plot-Holes Museum.

Not surprisingly, Hollywood followers who do not live in Chicago think the LMNA is a grand idea. The Atlantic calls the LMNA Lucas’ “best idea since Star Wars,” citing Chicago’s early 20th century history of millionaire philanthropists who have endowed such Chicago cultural institutions as the Field Museum and the Adler Planetarium. Someone needs to bring The Atlantic out of their turn-of-the-last-century Chicago fantasy world of philanthropic rail-barons and mustachioed department store moguls. Many 21st century Chicagoans who follow and write about the Windy City’s modern art culture, like Deanna Isaacs of the Chicago Reader, think the LMNA is, as its collections are described so far, a second tier art museum which does not deserve a spot on Chicago’s lakefront of world-class museums and cultural institutions.

Unbeknownst, apparently, to New Yorkers, Chicago has many other art museums with large and important modern collections that are not on the lakefront, like the Museum of Contemporary Art on East Chicago Avenue and the National Museum of Mexican Art on West 19th Street. It is too bad these institutions do not have a big Hollywood name attached to them. If they did then perhaps New York’s self-appointed curators of Chicago culture could suggest extensions to their galleries that could “popularize American art” enough to their satisfaction.  And there is already a narrative art museum on Chicago’s lakefront called the Art Institute of Chicago that welcomes 2 million visitors a year. Apparently, that is not popular enough for New York City’s artistic hoi polloi. One almost expects Hollywood sycophants to start clamoring for a George Lucas Aquarium next to the Shedd Aquarium, because, well, George Lucas! One of his movies had water in it!

Chicagoans are very proud and protective of their lakefront. Here is some Chicago history for New Yorkers. At the turn of the twentieth century, Aaron Montgomery Ward spent 20 years fighting against public development on Chicago’s lakefront, so much so that he was called the “Cerebrus of Grant Park” by the Chicago Daily News. The Illinois Supreme Court ruled the land was in the public trust and Ward sued the city repeatedly to remove buildings in the Grant Park area. Ever since then, Chicagoans have held Grant Park absolutely inviolate of commercial development and established strict guidelines as to what development can occur. If Jesus Christ himself came down to setup shop in Grant Park, Chicagoans would have a word to say about it.

Mayor Emanuel needs to convince Chicago that the LMNA will be a world-class museum and not a commercialized blight. Otherwise, he is in for a significant battle. So far, his heavy-handed approach has not won him many allies and the LMNAs proposed “seed” collection does not look impressive, except to New Yorkers dazzled by Hollywood lights. Even Richard Daley’s machine could not bring a casino to Chicago’s lakefront. The LMNA is shaping up to be the first test of Emanuel’s machine.

Do Chicagoans have a choice in shaping the cultural exhibits on their lakefront? It seems as if Mayor Emanuel has already made the choice to bring George Lucas’ ridiculous vanity museum to Chicago. If Mayor Emanuel knows his fellow Chicagoans at all he should pay homage to the city’s independent critical and artistic spirit by naming a museum that has anything to do with cinema after Chicago’s famous movie critic Roger Ebert. One wonders how quickly Lucas would pull out once that was suggested.

Opinion by Steve Killings

The Atlantic
The Chicago Reader