For two years now at least, Chicago has been at the mercy of George and Melody, two wealthy people seeking to build a museum in our city. Though George and Melody are accomplished, creative, and presumably well-connected, they never tried to build local support for their idea. They never turned to other wealthy people in the city to join up with them and share in the expense of realizing their project (as was done, for example, to get the Auditorium Theater built). They never mustered support from other leading cultural institutions or civic leaders, which might have convinced the public of the substantial benefits that would flow from realizing their idea.
Nor did George and Melody follow the example of themost ambitious museum-builder, the late J Paul Getty, who went out and bought the real estate on which his great museums stand.
No, George and Melody’s museum was to be built on public land. Their museum was to go up on a parcel of public property that they would lease from the city for 99 years. The lease payment would be a dollar a year. For the museum’s design, George and Melody turned to a foreign architectural firm, so that not even the architect’s fees ended up staying in town.
For George and Melody, Mayor Emanuel was willing to make any concession. The city government devoted oodles of time and expertise to ‘studying’ and fighting for this wealthy couple’s idea, at a time when our schools are out of cash and children in poor neighborhoods are being shot to death. When the courts at last gave a cold shoulder to the presumptions of George and Melody, Melody chose to play the race card, lamenting that those thwarting the museum had deprived minority children of a signal something.
How different it might have been had George and Melody displayed some sensitivity to the city’s dire condition and sought to accommodate the public’s objections to their appropriation of public land. As it was, their initiative fell short of being truly public-spirited. Mayor Emanuel, for his part, was too willing to give too much away. He ignored public anger about Daley-era lease deals that left Chicago with the short end of the stick and sought to subvert the public’s determination to prevent further desecration and development of the public lakefront. Mistakenly, Emanuel promised George and Melody something that wasn’t his to give away. And, instead of representing the citizens’ interest throughout the negotiations, Emanuel took up a position that was inimical to theirs.