How hard is it to build a museum these days? Just ask George Lucas. Plans to build his Lucas Museum of Narrative Art museum in Chicago are on life support, if not completely dead.
A conservation group has sued to prevent the museum's construction because of where in Chicago Lucas wants to build.
The city tried to strike a deal with the group to salvage the museum project, but those efforts collapsed earlier this week.
Chicago officials are now making a last-ditch effort amid rumblings from the Lucas camp that their patience is running out and that they may be ready to bail on Chicago in favor of another city.
Chicago officials on Wednesday filed with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, asking it to dismiss the conservation group's lawsuit.
The heart of the argument is over ownership and use of the land on which Lucas wants to build.
The plan was for the Star Wars creator to spend more than $700 million constructing a futuristic-looking building (which has been likened to a sand dune) within walking distance of other major museums in downtown Chicago.
Chicago city officials agreed to lease prime lakefront land to Lucas for 99 years. That land is currently used as a parking lot. The city's price for the lease was $10.
In exchange for the land, a large part of the Lucas museum campus would be a manmade park accessible to the public.
But a group called Friends of the Parks objected to the plan, saying the city improperly handed over public parkland for private use.
"It is too bad that the folks who want this museum on the lakefront don't understand that the public trust doctrine and its 150 years of protecting our lakefront is a vehicle that is important to protect," said Juanita Irizarry, the executive director of Friends of the Parks.
"We have long been the defenders of our lakefront," Irizarry said. "They apparently have not understood how important it is to us to uphold the principle that we should not have development on parkland."
The public trust doctrine is a legal principle that certain land, such as Chicago's shoreline, belongs to the public and is entrusted to the state for safe keeping. The Friends of the Parks argued in federal court that the doctrine prevents the city from simply giving the land away to the Lucas museum. A judge decided the case had enough merit to proceed.
That ruling is what the city wants reversed by the appeals court in a filing that officials admit is an "extraordinary remedy," because the lawsuit is still pending in lower court.
But Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in a statement that it was not practical to wait.
"Friends of the Parks' claims for federal relief are frivolous," he said. "Due to the extraordinary circumstances here, if immediate review is denied, there will be no litigation to appeal, as the museum will abandon its efforts to locate in Chicago."
City officials argue that they actually have the authority to lease the land to Lucas for his museum, because the state transferred ownership of the lakefront to the city more than 100 years ago. That is why, they argue, there are already several other museums built and operating on parkland along the lakeshore, including the Field Museum, the Adler Planetarium and the Art Institute.
The city tried offering an alternate lakefront site in order to avoid litigation. That plan, pitched by Emanuel, would have demolished a giant convention center building on the lakeshore and built the museum and new park space in its stead.
But the plan fell apart this week amid signals from Friends of the Park that they would prefer the Lucas camp consider locations away from the lakeshore.
In response, George Lucas' wife, Mellody Hobson, who is a businesswoman, a Chicagoan and the face of the Lucas museum efforts in the city, put out a strongly worded statement expressing her frustration.
"From the beginning, this process has been co-opted and hijacked by a small special-interest group," Hobson said. "In refusing to accept the extraordinary public benefits of the museum, the Friends of the Parks has proven itself to be no friend of Chicago. We are now seriously pursuing locations outside of Chicago."
And so it appears that two years after Chicago lured the Lucas museum away from San Francisco, it may now itself lose the museum to yet another city.
George Lucas had unsuccessfully tried for years to build his museum in the California city, but his efforts were frustrated there, too.
"George Lucas has said over and over again that he would like to see this museum built in his lifetime." said Don Bacigalupi, the president of the Lucas museum, adding that other cities have already been circling to lure the project away from Chicago.
"We're talking about an extraordinary once-in-a-lifetime gift to a city and it's people, and indeed the nation and the world. But it's going to be located somewhere," he said.
That Lucas has had such a difficult time building his museum could partly be attributed to a change in the political and social climate.
"As budget times get tougher, things like museums and other cultural organizations get put aside as amenities, or nice-to-haves and not vital," said Laura Lott, CEO of the American Alliance of Museums, a Washington, D.C.-based lobbying group.
Lott said museums are generally having a tougher time getting built. Bacigalupi, who has had prior experience in starting up museum projects, concurred.
"I think in our own time, this kind of epic generosity is rare. And it's rare enough that we've become a culture of skeptics that don't fully understand and embrace the spirit of altruism and epic generosity," he said. "Therefore, people ascribe unusual motives to patrons who want to do such extraordinary things. And I've experienced that first hand."
Chicago's current struggles may be one symptom of shifting attitudes. Both Bacigalupi and Lott pointed out that it was common practice in the past for governments to give new museums public lands to build upon, with the idea that museums are for the public's benefit.
The Great Recession has reshaped that dynamic, Lott said, "not only not providing that kind of opportunity for new museums, but going back and starting to find ways to charge existing museums for their use of public land."
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