Filmmaker George Lucas Faces Lawsuit as He Tries to Build a Museum of His Own Art Collection

In 2013, President Barack Obama awarded filmmaker George Lucas with a National Medal of the Arts. So, that's one thing Lucas has that Obama doesn't have. In the past year, however, the president has gotten something that was denied Lucas -- some Chicago parkland on which to put up a big building. Last spring, the Chicago City Council voted unanimously to transfer up to 21 acres in either Washington or Jackson Parks from the city's park district to the Barack Obama Foundation for the creation of a presidential library. The price for the transfer is $1.

The library in the city's south side is expected to attract 800,000 annual visitors, create 1,900 permanent jobs and generated $220 million in annual revenue, based on a 2014 study by the University of Chicago. Using public park land in this way is a "disappointment for us," said Melanie L. Moore, director of policy at the not-for-profit group Friends of the Park, "but we're not going to oppose this plan or file a lawsuit to stop it."

Not so fortunate is George Lucas (Star Wars, American Graffiti, Indiana Jones), who has been stymied in his efforts to build a seven-story, 400,000 square-foot Museum of Narrative Art that would house his extensive collection of illustration art, photography, animation and comic art on an undeveloped 17-acre parcel of park land between Lake Shore Drive and Lake Michigan in Chicago. A lawsuit, filed late last year by Friends of the Parks, looks to keep the open area along Lake Michigan close to Soldier's Field, where the NFL team Chicago Bears play, available to the public. The planned museum, according to the lawsuit, "will interfere with and impair [the] right of...Illinois citizens to use and enjoy" a stretch of coastline that is held in trust for this purpose by the State of Illinois.

This is Lucas' second try at getting this museum approved. Between 2010 and 2014, he sought to erect his museum on a park near the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, meeting considerable resistance. His thanks, in San Francisco and now Chicago, has been community pushback from groups unwilling to cede public spaces for a private museum.

The museum was offered to the City of Chicago with a ready-made architectural plan, a futuristic inverted bowl design with an observation deck on top. The design has met with mixed reactions -- a columnist for Crain's Chicago Business described it as a "design that R2-D2 would pan," and Chicago Alderman Brendan Reilly likened the design to "Jabba the Hutt's desert spaceship" -- but turning over public land for the creation of a single-collector museum has been the larger issue.
"The park land belongs to the state as a public trust, and under the public trust doctrine, the state has a responsibility to maintain the land for the public," said Thomas Geoghogan, the Chicago lawyer representing Friends of the Park. "You can't just give public property to a private individual."

Lucas' collection is vast, comprising photography and hundreds of drawn or painted artworks. It includes paintings by artists from the Golden Age of Illustration, such as Howard Chandler Christy, James Montgomery Flagg, John Held, J.C. Leyendecker, Maxfield Parrish, Howard Pyle, Norman Rockwell (After the Prom, The Gossips and The Check-up, among them) and N.C. Wyeth; comic art images, including works by Al Capp (L'il Abner), R. Crumb, Jules Feiffer, Walt Kelly (Pogo), David Levine, Charles Schultz (Peanuts) and Edward Sorel; pin-up images by such artists as Gil Elvgren and Alberto Vargas; and photographs by a variety of artists, including Berenice Abbott, Robert Capo, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks and Alfred Stieglitz. Additionally, there are digitally produced two- and three-dimensional works of fine art, as well as animation, film costumes and digital images used in architecture, cinema and illustration.
The Friends of the Park lawsuit describes the area where the museum would be sited as "a natural resource and pristine physical environment," but in fact it tends to be used as an overflow parking area for both Soldier's Field and McCormick Place, a popular convention center in the city's south side. Cassandra J. Francis, president of Friends of the Park, noted that although the proposed site "produces significant revenue as a Chicago Park District and Bears parking lot, its future reversion to parkland is possible. Once a building is in place, it is forever precluded from being public open space."

To George Lucas, a billionaire several times over, this must all seem like deja-vu. Back in 2010, he had proposed his Museum of Narrative Art, which he would fully pay for and endow, for an area of open land near the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. However, a nonprofit group, the Golden Gate Parks National Conservancy, objected to the siting of a museum promoting the filmmaker's personal tastes in art in an area intended "for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations." Other potential sites for the Lucas museum were mentioned, but none of the suggestions were treated seriously by the filmmaker. After four years of letters, meetings and emails, Lucas decided to abandon his plans for San Francisco and made a proposal to the City of Chicago, where his wife, Mellody Hobson, whom he married in 2013, works as senior vice-president and director of marketing for Ariel Investments.

Lucas quickly won the support for his museum of Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago Park District, the city agency in charge of the parks. "Through a smart process with ample opportunities for public input, the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art will be a landmark in our City where people will gather to be inspired by the Museum's collection and the natural beauty just outside its doors," Park District Superintendent Mike Kelly claimed. Within a few months, the Governor's office was brought on board. On May 1st, Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner signed into law a bill that would enable the construction of the Barack Obama Presidential Library and the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, both of which are slated to be built on park land. According to a statement from the Governor's office, Rauner "believes the Lucas museum will be a big benefit to the state of Illinois and the city of Chicago."

Still, the Friends of the Park lawsuit, which was filed last November, is proceeding, despite efforts in court by both the Park District and the Mayor's office to have it dismissed. In March, U.S. District Judge John Darrah ruled that Friends of the Parks "plausibly states a claim that the agreement violates the public trust doctrine." Friends of the Park has recommended an alternative site for the Lucas Museum, a half-mile south "on the west side of Lake Shore Drive on the former Michael Reese Hospital site," Francis stated. "The Reese site would allow the Museum Campus to be expanded to the south and bring needed economic development benefits to the Bronzeville Community."

As yet, George Lucas has not expressed interest in placing his museum elsewhere in the city, and the filmmaker was quoted in the Los Angeles Times as considering bringing his museum to Los Angeles if the legal situation in Chicago is not worked out to his liking. "The advantage Los Angeles has is that it's on the USC campus and I don't have to go through all the rigmarole of years and years of trying to get past everything," Lucas said in the Times article. "That's an advantage because I do want to get it done in my lifetime."