Billionaire "Star Wars" creator George Lucas, who wants to establish a major museum to house his significant art and movie memorabilia collection, is considering Chicago as the location after plans for his $300 million Lucas Cultural Arts Museum stalled in San Francisco.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel wants the museum and is expected to create a task force of community leaders to identify potential sites. The city will submit a proposal to Lucas in the coming months, said David Spielfogel, a senior adviser to Emanuel.
Lucas' institution, excitedly identified by one San Francisco publication as "a world-class museum of the digital arts," would house a collection that includes valuable Norman Rockwell paintings, examples of the Hollywood special effects he pioneered at Industrial Light & Magic, and memorabilia such as a scale model of the Millennium Falcon, the fictional spacecraft commanded by Han Solo.
The decision to consider Chicago reflects Lucas' recent commitment to the city. The 69-year-old filmmaker, who is worth an estimated $5 billion, is married to Chicago investment executive Mellody Hobson.
Lucas has been living part time in downtown Chicago.
In the past year, Lucas and Hobson have committed $25 million each to two local, education-focused charities: the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools and After School Matters.
"The city of Chicago has enthusiastically welcomed me and I consider Chicago to be my second home," Lucas said in a statement. "I look forward to working with community leaders to see if Chicago can become home to the Lucas Cultural Arts Museum."
Chicago will not be the only city vying to host the museum, which is expected to be built without taxpayer money. Emanuel has been pursuing Lucas' collection for months.
The city has a shot at the museum because Lucas has been frustrated in his efforts to nail down an agreement for his first choice: a San Francisco bayside location on Crissy Field, part of a former Army base turned urban national park known as the Presidio.
The seven-member board of The Presidio Trust, which oversees the park, rejected his and two other competing plans, offering instead a less desirable spot in the Presidio, near Lucas' former film studio, now owned by Disney.
A spokesman for the museum said Lucas' preferred site was at sea level facing the bay and Golden Gate Bridge, while the site under consideration is "higher and back and removed."
"Frankly, we're looking at it, and we're waiting to see what Chicago comes up with," said David Perry, the spokesman. "And there are some other cities that have expressed interest, which I can't talk about."
When asked whether Lucas' embrace of a Chicago proposal was nothing more than an attempt to gain leverage over the Presidio board, Perry responded: "We are not playing the cities off each other."
The museum would be a tribute to storytelling and art in its most popular and commercial forms, from comic books and children's book illustrations to costumes, cinematic design and digital animation.
"I prefer emotional art," Lucas said in a video about the museum. "Something you actually feel."
Among the centerpieces of the collection are works by painter and illustrator Maxfield Parrish and Rockwell, which, when combined with Lucas' friend Steven Spielberg's Rockwell collection, packed the galleries of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in 2010.
Another key component is digital animation and special effects, such as the technology behind "Toy Story" and the sound effects that created the light saber. Among the museum's inked partners are DreamWorks Animation SKG, the maker of "Shrek" and other animated films. Spielberg co-founded the company, and Hobson is chairman of its board. Other partners include Pixar, the creator of the "Toy Story" franchise, and National Geographic.
"We're not talking about your grandfather's old museum," Perry said. "We're talking about a museum that is going to stretch the boundaries of the museumgoing experience."
The museum would be built and endowed without taxpayer support, Spielfogel and Perry pledged. When pressed whether the gift of public land would be deemed "taxpayer support," Perry responded that it would depend on Chicago's offer.
Eleven city museums, from the Art Institute of Chicago to the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum and the National Museum of Mexican Art, use Chicago Park District land and receive taxpayer money that subsidizes a portion of their operations. In exchange, the museums are required to offer free admission to Illinois residents for the equivalent of 52 days a year and not charge entry to Illinois schoolchildren accompanied by a teacher.
Lucas previously committed $300 million to build the museum in San Francisco, with renderings depicting a 95,000-square-foot facility. Lucas has said the museum would receive a $400 million endowment over time. In comparison, Chicago's Adler Planetarium is more than 145,500 square feet, according to its website.
Should Chicago win the museum, Perry said the institution would need to grow in size to make up for the loss of current, off-site storage in San Francisco. He also said previous architectural renderings would be tossed and the design process would start anew.
"I really do want to stress from the beginning, we're not trying to play funny with words and say we may come back at you for this tax, or for this request for money," Perry said. "This is a gift of philanthropy in the style of a Rockefeller, a Carnegie, a Mellon or a Smithson (the founding donor of the Smithsonian Institution). This is a sort of once-in-a-lifetime gift of philanthropy that this country hasn't seen from a cultural perspective in many, many decades."
Chicago would seem to have some advantages over San Francisco, namely greater tourism traffic. Chicago set a record in 2012, the most recent year for which annual figures are available, with 46.37 million visitors. Emanuel recently increased the city's goal to 55 million visitors annually by 2020, up from 50 million.
The city of San Francisco attracted 16.51 million visitors in 2012, according to the San Francisco Travel Association.
"I think Chicago has a diversity of communities and level of accessibility that is unparalleled in the country," Spielfogel said. "We've got a larger, more vibrant city that would allow for a bigger audience, and we have a very supportive government who sees the potential for this to help on a local and international level."
Still, Lucas grew up in Modesto, Calif., about 90 miles east of San Francisco. And the city has shaped his life and career.
"I spent my whole young years up until I was in college coming to San Francisco, coming to the cultural events, coming to the baseball games," Lucas said during a September 2013 presentation at a public meeting at the Presidio.
"Back in those days, we had roadshow productions, where the movies were in the big theaters down on Market Street. We even had numbered seats, and I would come and see all the big movies here in San Francisco. And go to the museums. Generally, this, to me, was the cultural center of my life. So when I moved here in 1969, right out of college, I stayed here. And I built my business here. I never made a movie in Hollywood."
After four years of talks with The Presidio Trust, the tone has changed.
When asked whether Lucas still prefers that his museum be built in San Francisco, Perry said: "George Lucas prefers this museum be built for future generations. And I think it's obvious why the first place he looked at was right here in his own backyard. … But he ultimately feels that what is important is that this museum is built someplace where it will add to the educational benefit of young people and where the community embraces it."