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George Lucas museum is quickly becoming the Darth Invader of Chicago

From its name to its location, the LMNA is already embroiled in controversy
From its name to its location, the LMNA is already embroiled in controversyPhoto by Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images

It takes a rare breed of celebrity to propose a project that has simultaneously been called a vanity project, narrative art, nonsensical, inconvenient, and either the greatest or the stupidest idea ever. George Lucas is one of those rare celebrities. And no, this latest controversial idea is not a shot-by-shot remake of The Phantom Menace. It’s the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art (LMNA) that the acclaimed filmmaker wishes to build on Chicago’s lakefront, south of Soldier Field.

In June, George Lucas and Mayor Rahm Emmanuel announced plans for the construction of the LMNA, opening in 2018 on a seventeen-acre site on the area of the lakefront that currently houses such prestigious museums as the Shedd Aquarium, the Field Museum of Natural History, and the Adler Planetarium. This museum will follow the history of human storytelling from the days of hieroglyphs and cave paintings through the technological advances of the 20th century and into the future. Exhibits will combine a mix of Lucas’s personal art collection, which includes masterpieces by Alberto Vargas and Norman Rockwell, with Star Wars memorabilia. Since this announcement, both critics and celebrants have emerged from the woodwork and flooded the media with their opinions of the multi-million (and possibly billion) dollar project.

A majority of the proponents of George Lucas’s self-celebration are non-Chicagoans who are unfamiliar with the city-specific issues that the museum will face. For example, Katie Kilkenny at The Atlantic calls the museum Lucas’s “best idea since Star Wars.” She raises a valid point that the museum has already satisfied the purpose that all museums should strive to fulfill: sparking discussion about the artists whose works are collected inside. Fans of the project admire Lucas’s promise to finance the museum to which he will give his name, claiming that Lucas has earned his so-called “vanity project” through his ability to merge visual storytelling techniques with modern technology. Find all of Kilkenny’s opinions at http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/07/george-lucas-narrative-art-museum-chicago-best-idea-since-a-new-hope/374190/.

Chicago critics are not so accepting. Deanna Isaacs of the Chicago Reader criticized Lucas for plastering his name across the front of a museum that will not only benefit from his philanthropy but also display his own creations, including the original model of the infamous Millennium Falcon. Commenting on this latest example of a vanity project, Isaacs said, “Discreet, anonymous philanthropy is a distant memory of a less crass era.” See Isaacs’s list of reasons why the LMNA should be shunned from Chicago at http://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/george-lucas-cultural-arts-museum-why-not/Content?oid=13647871.

Other Chicago-friendly critics point to the incongruity of placing a museum that seems to honor Hollywood commercialism next to some of the most highly regarded museums in the country. Steve Killing at the Guardian Liberty Voice points out that the city already houses a world-class institution of narrative art, known to its two million annual visitors as the Art Institute of Chicago. Chicagoans take great pride in their museums and other cultural achievements—justifiably so—and Mayor Emmanuel’s approval of this latest celebrity fanfare is being criticized as a failure to appreciate the near-infectious invasion of Hollywood glitz and glamor in the city that gave the world the seminal film critic Roger Ebert. Read Killing’s full editorial (which is appropriately eviscerating from a man with such a distinctive surname) at http://guardianlv.com/2014/07/george-lucas-and-his-ridiculous-vanity-museum-on-chicagos-lakefront/.

Aside from loftier artistic sentiments, John Kass and Leslie Pollock of the Chicago Tribune commented on the inappropriateness of the proposed LMNA site. Aside from finding the entire concept of the museum to be ludicrous, Kass notes that the proposed museum site, currently a parking lot south of Soldier Field, should be preserved for true Chicagoans who ask for nothing more on a beautiful day in October than to grill a brat at a tailgate party before visiting the Bears on their home turf. See Kass’s video coverage of the future site of the LMNA, picturesquely located in one of the city’s most attractive parking lots, at http://www.chicagotribune.com/videogallery/80636763/News/Kass-Lucas-museum-The-most-stupid-idea-I-ve-heard-in-a-long-time.

Pollock places her opinion clearly in the first two lines of her editorial by using the term “narrative art” between quotation marks, the universal symbol for written sarcasm. However, unlike Kass, Pollock does not criticize the idea of the museum as a whole, noting instead that Chicago should graciously accept the offer to locate what could be another prized museum in the city. Instead, she merely questions the location of the museum on the lakefront, claiming that the proposed site between Soldier Field and McCormick Place will not offer the LMNA the visibility it needs to be a valuable tourist attraction. Read Pollock’s more tempered coverage at http://www.chicagotribune.com/business/ct-lucas-museum-pollock-oo-0727-biz-20140727,0,226443.story.

In fact, the proposed LMNA site has garnered so much controversy that Bears fans and public space preservationists alike have joined forces and vowed to block the construction of the museum. ArtNet reports that this unlikely collaboration is currently hatching plans to file for an injunction that would prevent the acclaimed director from building his museum in the proposed location. These groups instead would prefer for the museum to be built in a more downtown location or in one of the many Chicago neighborhoods that does not currently house such an attraction. If these activists are successful in claiming that construction of the museum would violate city ordinances protecting the public space adjacent to Lake Michigan, then the city would have to put the brakes on its $1 billion, 95,000-square foot pet project. Read ArtNet’s coverage, as well as a similar story by Rolling Stone, at http://news.artnet.com/in-brief/chicago-bears-fans-vow-to-stop-george-lucas-museum-64880 and http://www.rollingstone.com/movies/news/george-lucas-facing-possible-lawsuit-over-chicago-museum-build-20140716.

Despite this controversy, however, George Lucas moved closer to realizing his dream museum when, on July 28th, he selected Beijing-based MAD Architects and Chicago-based Studio Gang to design the museum and the surrounding landscape, which will include a bridge to connect the museum to Northerly Island. Furthermore, Chicago-based VOA Associates, whose most recent projects included the city’s bid for the 2016 Summer Olympics, will serve as the executive architect and lead implementation of the MAD design. See Lewis Lazare’s report on this latest development at http://www.bizjournals.com/chicago/news/2014/07/28/george-lucas-names-architectural-team-for-his.html?page=all.

Of course, all of this controversy aside, it is fairly indisputable that a Star Wars-centric museum would bring a huge tourist boost to the city. While, up until now, the only connection between Chicago and one of the most blockbusting film franchises of all time has been outdoor screenings of A New Hope at the summer movie series, the arrival of a tourist venue celebrating a movie collection with such a massive following that online debates concerning the eternal “who shot first” question from the cantina scene still rage hotly both online and at certain parties would certainly make Chicago the first stop on all Star Wars pilgrimages.

So let the debate rage, and may the force be with you.