Why Is Narrative Art So Important?

I am not a fan of the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, the proposed new venue between McCormick Place and Soldier Field.  It seems like a misplaced priority, insisting on this particular site seems needlessly destructive, and the design is horrendous.  Vocalizing that usually means hearing from one of its supporters.  “Why wouldn’t you want something that creates green space and economic impact while costing us nothing?”  Why indeed.

It would be preferable for Mayor Emanuel to focus on fixing the streets.  Many of them look like they are in Afghanistan.  Big projects often get pushed through based on how great they will be for our city economy.  But the finances never seem to improve.  Meanwhile basic matters like pension funding are ignored until disaster level is reached.  The only way this project makes sense is if they said, “we are going to take museum revenue and use it to get rid of the new garbage collection fee,” or something similar.  But I do not think that would happen.  They would find some other project to spend it on instead.

Saying the Lucas Museum costs us nothing is a lie.  It may be privately funded.  But City staff members have spent, and will continue to spend, considerable energy on this endeavor. Their time costs a lot of money.  Furthermore any time spent on something frivolous is time not spent on a serious matter.

Right now we have many serious matters.  Chief among them is that our officials seem to think spending can go on forever.  It will get to the point where the City can no longer sell bonds to fill budget holes.  Investors do not buy bonds if they think the issuer cannot pay.  Likewise banks do not make loans that are likely to default.  And they cannot just go on raising taxes without consequence.  I have had several recent sticker shock episodes, related to sales tax and unreasonable municipal fines, that got me thinking about moving out of the city.  If the pain gets too severe I will follow through and so will others.  It does not always seem our civic leaders understand such things.

You might say, “well the people running the show must know what they are doing.”  We cannot bank on that.  Anyone who has met a celebrity face-to-face knows they are just normal people.  A big part of celebrity image is orchestrated and they make mistakes just like anyone else.  I saw Mayor Daley on television for years.  It was not until we attended the same cocktail party that I realized how incredibly short he is.  If politicians knew everything you would not hear about them making scandalous use of Craigslist.  They would not be buying Bruce Lee memorabilia with campaign funds.

Then there is all this green space talk.  What is wrong with a parking lot?  This particular one sits right between two major venues that need it.  Much as some may dream of a world where we ride bicycles everywhere people are not going to give up driving.  That is especially true in a city with winters as bad as ours.  We have tons of green space already such as Lincoln Park.  Destroying a useful city asset for the sake of some eco-pipe dream is silly.

We already did that once with Meigs Field.  Some say, “we took Meigs from the rich and gave it to the people.”  Anyone who really believes that should study the history of Cuba.  They were saying the same thing after Castro’s revolution back in the 50’s.  They threw open the gates of private country clubs and let everyone run around.  But after an initial euphoria it did not work out well for the people at all.  Castro and a few others ended up with all the money.  The people were plunged into decades of economic blight and ruin.  Meigs always seemed like an economic contributor.  Having an airport right next to the Loop would have to help in attracting corporate offices.  Every time I passed by there seemed to be flights taking off and landing.  Today it is a basically a giant nature lagoon.

Now I hear the same talk around Bears tailgaters.  “Why should we have an ugly parking lot just for a few Bears fans.  It should be given to the people!”  Nobody has explained to me why Bears fans are any less important than those who want to view narrative art.  Some say the museum will create more economic impact.  But would it really?  The Lucas Museum might be open more days of the year.  But how many open days would it take to match the 63,000 capacity of one Bears game?  I am also pretty sure significantly more money gets spent per capita on game days.  At the Lucas Museum it would seem you pay admission and maybe buy a plastic souvenir.  Bears tailgaters buy lots of alcohol, food, barbecue supplies, warmup gear, expensive sports tickets, etc.  They also spend money on sports-related items year round, like hats and shirts.   And apparently those tailgating passes can be resold for a lot more than original face value in an active secondary market.  Is economic impact not the whole reason cities want an NFL franchise?  There could be a few die-hard Star Wars fans that rise to such a level.  But the average museum visitor probably would not measure up.

The issue with displacing Bears fans centers around tradition.  Lucas’ design apparently has increased total tailgating spaces.  But that is only part of the picture.  I never went to the old Maxwell Street Market but had seen film of this exciting place.  Visiting the new one was a huge disappointment.  Basically there were just a bunch of tents set up along a city street like an art fair.  It hardly resembled the vibrant market in media accounts of the original.  Established functions cannot simply be shut down and moved to a new location.  The tradition does not necessarily transfer over.  It appears the Bears’ business comes from fan tradition.  If that is damaged I am not sure what is left.

Museum planners think building a tailgating “event prairie” will solve the problem.  From renderings it looks like a park where parties are supposed to be held.  My hunch is that Bears fans do not care about parks or green space.  I think they like to sit on asphalt, drink and barbecue.  It has been going on that way a long time.  So having them embrace an “event prairie” seems doubtful.  In renderings it appears the stadium would not even be in view.  Tailgaters would be staring at the Lucas Museum.

That might not be so bad if the design was not an atrocity.  In my entire life I have never heard anyone say: “boy, the Museum of Science and Industry sure is an eyesore.”  That is because it is a low-key yet relatively attractive building.  Renderings of the Lucas Museum remind me of Jabba the Hut’s Palace from Return of the Jedi.  Judging by comments on the Internet many people feel the same.  Consider also that Soldier Field’s redesign already gets architectural criticism.  Do we need two such buildings right next to each other?

Chicago is a great place even without this museum.  George Lucas seems to be suggesting he will go somewhere else if he cannot be between Soldier Field and McCormick Place.  In that event we will still have countless popular attractions.  It is difficult to understand why he cannot build on one of the city’s countless vacant or underutilized parcels.  Another location would allow us to keep our Bears tradition and have a new museum.  Lucas’ insistence, when it impinges on something people value to build his personal outlet, seems exceedingly arrogant.

The non-profit Friends of the Parks filed a lawsuit blocking the use of this lakefront site.  Hopefully it succeeds.  May the Force be with them.

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