The Lucas Museum Saga: Why Was This Museum Rejected by Chicago?

Jason Sperb
Mock-up from official Facebook page

What made George Lucas such a cinematic visionary is also what’s making him less effective as a civic figure.

George Lucas built his legacy on never having to answer to anyone else. On 24 June, the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art announced that it was pulling out of Chicago to pursue locations in California, having finally become fed up with the protracted legal battle involving a lawsuit filed by the Friends of the Parks. The organization’s real agenda was never entirely clear, but what was apparent is that it had little to do with the Museum itself.

Anyone who thought it was simply a collection of random movie memorabilia, like some tacky roadside attraction from years past or an empty vanity project from a billionaire looking ahead to his legacy, really does not know what they are talking about. Chicago’s loss of the Lucas Museum should be pretty heartbreaking for anyone paying close attention. A world-class museum that would have told the story of a range of visual and interactive arts -- not only the movies, let alone Star Wars -- could have been another spectacular jewel in Chicago’s nearly unparalleled lakefront Museum Campus.

Museums are essential to the educational and cultural life of a community -- large or small -- and the Lucas Museum would have been no exception. Many famous museums over the years were funded (and thus named after) wealthy benefactors, but regardless of intention, once those institutions are built they take on a life of their own as they become an integral part of the fabric of the city.

Looking for easy publicity, but also tapping into deeper resentments towards the current leadership in City Hall, the Friends of the Parks were wrong to pick this particular fight to make a political point that had nothing to do with the ecological health of the city. Their position was always thoroughly disingenuous, as the Lucas Museum was right to point out the absurdity of blocking this project just to protect an ugly parking lot.

Chicago is worse off today because of such bullying.

But let’s not act like the Museum is blameless in this battle, either. Looking back now, that’s perhaps what I find so frustrating as someone who badly wanted to see the museum come to Chicago. Hindsight is always 20/20, but the public relations campaign around the proposed institution was a disaster from the start. Blaming the courts or partisan opportunists misses the larger failure of the Museum to effectively sell itself to the city -- a sales pitch which might have made a huge difference in changing public opinion against the lawsuit, instead of an apathetic public that only fed its momentum.

The first problem is that the Museum never really articulated what it was about beyond Lucas’ association with movies and Star Wars. What makes the Museum so exciting conceptually as the first of its kind is also what makes it hard to sell to a broader public that’s only occasionally paying attention.

Is it a “Cultural Arts” museum, as was pitched to San Francisco, or is it as “Narrative Art” museum, as it was pitched to Chicago? What do those terms mean? I’m not sure even the Museum knew yet what it wanted to be. On the one hand, this invites the exciting proposition of creative possibilities limited only by the human imagination, but such vagueness also makes it more difficult to sell the Museum’s value and purpose to a public whose support it needs.

Yet, beyond those definitional issues, there was also always a tin ear in the Museum’s approach to Chicago politics. Frankly, the whole Lucas Museum project never shook, or even seemed aware of, the perception (unfair or otherwise) of being a shady backdoor deal between a deeply unpopular mayor and an aloof out-of-town billionaire. The Museum’s position, that it negotiated with “democratically elected bodies of government”, reveals a blind eye towards the politically tenuous position those bodies currently hold, not to mention the voice of the people who elected them in the first place.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s shaky re-election says more about his weak competition than any fondness for the current mayor. I cannot think of a worse statement to make as one departs Chicago in this political environment than to personally thank Emanuel and Bruce Rauner (the Governor of Illinois) for their efforts, so it’s almost like the Museum was taunting the city by that point.

In focusing on winning over the city’s political class, the Lucas Museum never effectively won the hearts and minds of the people of Chicago. Focusing just on jobs created by the project sounds like a lot of other corporate pitches over the years: a company moves into the city because of sweet tax breaks offered, promising the public a lot of jobs in return, but then pulls up stakes a fewer years later for even better tax breaks somewhere else, leaving the city worse off. This was never the intention of the Museum, of course, but rhetoric like that which focuses mainly on job creation to help sell a new investment has echoes of empty economic promises that too many people have heard before. It landed with a thud.

But the biggest problem, which extends from the failure to effectively sell the Museum to a broader audience, was the public perception that Chicago shouldn’t have any say in what happens with the Museum and instead should just be grateful to have a generous gift of this size. As a film scholar and avid museum enthusiast, I don’t have to be told twice about how amazing the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art -- or whatever they ultimately call it -- is going to be. But I was never the audience it needed to win over.

This issue might begin at the very top. Last spring, I was teaching fandom in my 100-level media studies class. I used a clip from the 2011 documentary, The People vs. George Lucas, about the increasing tension between the legendary filmmaker and the base of diehard Star Wars fans over the years as some became disillusioned with the 1997 Special Editions and then prequels. Unlike the Museum, I’ve never really had much investment in that debate either way, but as a teacher I appreciate how that particular conversation crystallizes the age-old debate of who “owns” beloved media objects as well as larger questions about the mutual construction of textual meaning between audience and producer.

But re-watching that clip again with students in the context of the ongoing legal battles in Chicago between the Lucas Museum and the Friends of the Parks, I noticed how many echoes there were back then between that older debate over the Star Wars franchise (arguably now moot since Disney owns it) and the current fight that played out not only in the courtrooms but also the courtroom of public opinion.

Star Wars fans back then on the whole were upset because (to them) Lucas was tinkering in one way or another with “their” beloved childhood objects. But the fact they were increasingly angry because they were losing control of something important to them was magnified exponentially by the public perception that Lucas did not personally care one bit what fans thought, or worse, that fans were an active annoyance to him. I could imagine the resulting frustration on the part of those who had invested so much time and money into Star Wars.

On the one hand, Lucas was right, of course: Star Wars was his vision, the result of his ambition and effort, and he has justifiably reaped the benefits and riches of that accomplishment. More than that, he took that money and invested back into countless technological innovations behind the scenes that have come to completely redefine the art of cinematic storytelling. There's no doubt that the Lucas Museum will do something similar for the world of museums. What defined Lucas as a cinematic visionary was his unbending ambition that never compromised or negotiated with anyone, so moving forward, Lucas might have earned the right to do whatever he wants -- within reason, of course.

What works when you are building a private studio in the California countryside won’t work when you are planning to build something that will need to nuance its place within a more complex political and cultural landscape. Is it insignificant that one of Lucas’ only public statements was to lament the lawsuit as he announced he was pulling out of town? If there is going to be a “Lucas” Museum, then Lucas himself might wish to take a more active role instead of letting outside perceptions and assumptions (many of which may be unfair) continue to creep in.

As the Lucas Museum heads back to California -- where it has already failed to materialize once -- it might be wise for everyone to treat this whole debacle as an educational and cultural experience in itself, before a brick has even been laid.

Jason Sperb teaches media studies at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois. He is the author of Blossoms and Blood Postmodern Media Culture and the Films of Paul Thomas Anderson (University of Texas), and his latest book: Flickers of Film: Nostalgia in the Time of Digital Cinema (Rutgers University Press, 2015).

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