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Lucas museum would be boost for lakefront

Proposed Lucas museum site

Proposed Lucas museum site

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 Proposed Lucas museum site

Updated: June 24, 2014 7:29AM

What we have now is a couple of ugly parking lots that will remain ugly parking lots.

Ugly parking lots in an empty no-man’s land.

Technically it is part of Chicago’s celebrated lakefront, but the 17-acre stretch of dreariness south of Soldier Field and north of McCormick Place is a place where strollers seldom stroll and picnickers never picnic. Worse yet, as things stand, it will remain that way for decades to come. The Chicago Park District, which owns the land, is in no position to spend millions of dollars to rebuild those parking lots below ground and cover them with greenery.

To build a world-class museum on that site, then, by no means contradicts Chicago’s commitment to keeping its lakefront famously “open, clear and free.” On the contrary, to build the Lucas Cultural Arts Museum there, as Mayor Rahm Emanuel proposes, would be consistent with that ideal. The museum, as envisioned, would include 10 acres of new parkland and a pedestrian bridge to the lovely but underused Northerly Island. The parking lots would be moved underground at the museum developer’s expense.

This editorial page almost always opposes new construction on the lakefront. We appreciate how hard earlier generations of Chicagoans, led most notably by Montgomery Ward, fought to preserve our city’s one great natural wonder. We take seriously our responsibility to continue the fight.

Not for nothing did the Sun-Times oppose building massive McCormick Place on lakefront land decades ago — we still wish we could put it up on a flatbed truck and move it inland. And not for nothing did we more recently oppose moving the Chicago Children’s Museum to Grant Park.

But, best we can tell, Emanuel’s site-selection task force has found an acceptable location for an exception to the rule. A new museum south of Soldier Field, one dedicated to the storytelling powers of the visual arts, could be a fine addition to our lakefront’s Museum Campus, located just a pleasant walk or shuttle bus ride from the Field Museum, the Adler and the Shedd. Traffic issues will have to be worked out to handle more visitors — but that’s a good thing.

As Chicago continues to reinvent itself, moving ever further from its smokestack days, conventions and tourism play ever-expanding roles in the city’s economy. The recreational charms of the lakefront become an ever bigger drawing card, and the success of the Museum Campus becomes ever more important. Potential synergies among the museums, distinctive in their offerings but alike in their basic business, seem endless.

But a word about the museum itself, assuming it actually lands in Chicago and not San Francisco: It had better be good. A bad museum, boring or quickly outdated, would be worse than no museum. And what gives us pause in this respect is everybody’s seeming inability to express the mission of the Lucas Museum in just a few words.

The Chicago History Museum is about Chicago history. The Museum of Science and Industry is about science and industry. The Art Institute of Chicago is about art. The Shedd Aquarium is an aquarium.

But the Lucas Cultural Arts Museum? What exactly is that again?

“It will highlight the visual arts as a medium of storytelling, really from the beginning of time,” Kurt Summer, co-chair of the site selection committee, explained to us. “This idea that it would be about ‘Star Wars’ is really not what it is. It is cave paintings to hieroglyphics to Norman Rockwell to digital art — all means of telling the story of the human experience. It will educate. When young people visit, it will open their minds to how to tell stories and envision a different future.”

OK, so that’s not a short answer. But it’s a good one.

And George Lucas, whose movies have defined the cutting edge, could be the man to make it happen.

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