Access to Chicago's lakefront Museum Campus has been dreadful forever. Isolated by the no-man's-land of Lake Shore Drive, the campus's three great museums—the Adler, the Field, and the Shedd—sit apart from the city, remote as castles across a dangerous moat. It's an inconvenience we've tolerated, like the weather. It hasn't been the city's most pressing problem.
Until last summer, when the lousy access to the Museum Campus became an urgent issue demanding immediate resolution. On August 1, Mayor Rahm Emanuel stepped up and addressed it, announcing that he'd appointed a task force to figure out what ought to be done about the "Museum Campus transportation network."
It was no coincidence that this came little more than a month after George Lucas accepted the mayor's offer of a nice piece of lakefront Park District property as the site for his new $400 million museum. Never mind that, officially, it's still only a proposal, yet to be approved by the City Council. The Lucas Museum of Narrative Art was already listed on the mayoral announcement as a campus tenant with a seat on the task force.
Then, on September 10, the Chicago Park District announced that it was creating a new Museum Campus "framework plan" to "establish a vision for the future" and wanted to engage the public in the process. An open meeting was scheduled for October 21 at the Spertus Institute, with the Grant Park Conservancy as cohost.
This caught the attention of Friends of the Parks, which has opposed putting the Lucas Museum on the campus. FOTP posted news of the meeting on its website and urged its supporters to take advantage of this opportunity to speak up for keeping the lakefront open, clear, and free.
But it turned out that the biggest change coming to the Museum Campus wasn't on the agenda for discussion.
In fact, if you didn't know better, this meeting might have given you the impression that the Park District doesn't want to hear anything the public has to say about the Lucas Museum.
In a pattern similar to the town hall meetings for the Chicago Cultural Plan, the evening started off with brief presentations to the full group by various officials, then moved to friendlier (or more easily controllable) small-group discussions. Each table of about ten people was assigned one of four set subjects to discuss: recreation, education and engagement, access, and sustainability.
Park District staffers ran the discussions using a prepared list of questions, none of which had anything to do with the newcomer (e.g., "When did you last visit the campus, and what was your experience?"). Which led one group member to observe that "The Lucas Museum is the elephant in the room."
- Courtesy of Lucas Museum of Narrative Art
- Ma Yansong and Beijing-based MAD Architects' rendering of the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art
Especially since it had figured prominently in the official presentations. Park District chief of staff Gia Biagi noted that it has entered into a "memorandum of understanding with the Lucas Museum," expects to see the design concept for the building "before the end of the year," and anticipates opening the museum in 2018. Chicago Department of Transportation planning director Jeffrey Sriver said Lucas Museum representatives have been part of its Museum Campus discussions, and Grant Park Conservancy president Bob O'Neill touted the Lucas Museum as "a shot in the arm of hundreds of millions of dollars."
That surprised Jacqueline Sloan, a neighborhood resident and Friends of the Parks board member, and struck her as "disingenuous." Although "the verbal presentation was frequently about the Lucas Museum, they wanted no discussion about it," Sloan said. "I was expecting them to be more open and take questions."
So was FOTP board chair Lauren Moltz, who was also at the meeting. Says Moltz, "They're treating it as a done deal. We don't see it as a done deal. To us, this is a violation of the Lakefront Protection Ordinance.
"The time to have had a much more significant public process would have been before they announced that they'd made an agreement with the Lucas Museum and that the museum is going on the lakefront."
Friends of the Parks president Cassandra Francis says she heard from people galvanized by the way the meeting was structured: "There wasn't enough process, and this concept that it's a done deal is uncomfortable. There's a growing population of people who are not happy with the way this went down."
So FOTP is rattling the only saber it has—the threat of taking the issue to court. "We challenge all the involved parties to look at alternative sites, and we're getting very close to finalizing our legal strategy if they don't," Francis says. That could be expensive, but Francis says they "already have a majority of the costs covered. We believe that this issue is worth the effort, given its impact on the legacy of our city and its lakefront."
On Monday the Lucas Museum gave us the first glimpse of what the museum will look like. Renderings from Ma Yansong's Beijing-based MAD Architects posted on the museum's website show a grouping of large white bumps, which the accompanying text says are made of smooth stone. The largest resembles a volcano topped by a shiny floating disk and slashed by an eyelike horizontal opening. Francis says the design of the building has nothing to do with Friends of the Parks' objections and will not change the group's course of action.
According to a Park District spokesperson, there won't be another public meeting on the museum campus plan until the spring. If you want to know what's going on before then, there's a website, museumcampusplan.com; for now it's short on information, but there are links to pages where you can comment.
And for folks still looking for clues as to what the museum will contain, the Lucas Museum, in partnership with the Smithsonian, announced this week that a new exhibit, "Rebel, Jedi, Princess, Queen: Star Wars™ and the Power of Costume," will travel to a dozen cities starting in January. According to the Smithsonian, it's built around a display of 60 costumes "from the first six blockbuster Star Wars™ films" and will explore "the challenges, the intricate processes and the remarkable artistry of Lucas, the concept artists and costume designers."