an blog | AJBlog Central | Contact me

Crystal Bridges vs. Wal-Mart Workers: Jeffrey Goldberg&#146s Irrational Either/Or

Miniature replica of a Wal-Mart shopping cart (left) and Sam Walton’s 1979 Ford pickup truck—part of a display on life in Northwest Arkansas at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

Far be it for me to become a champion of Alice Walton (on whom I’ve been notably hard in the past) or of Wal-Mart (where I don’t shop). But Bloomberg View‘s Jeffrey Goldberg has gone off the deep end is his twopart rant condemning as a “moral tragedy” Walton’s worthy Arkansas project, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

[I’ve exhaustively reviewed the museum and analyzed its finances, here (NPR commentary), here (collection), here (scholarship), here (more collection), here (finances), here (more finances), here (critical reception) and here (Moshe Safdie‘s architecture).]

In his investigation of the “perverse values of Sam Walton‘s heirs,” Bloomberg’s intrepid opinionator went so far as to accost workers at Wal-Mart’s Springdale, AR, store. (How many, he didn’t say.) Goldberg “couldn’t find a single employee who had visited the
museum, or was contemplating visiting it.”

That’s their choice and their loss: Admission to the museum (by timed ticket) is free (thanks to a $20-million Wal-Mart grant) and everyone who arrives gets an exceedingly friendly welcome. Whatever Wal-Mart workers’ cultural interests (or lack thereof), chances are that many of the children of the company’s Northwest Arkansas employees will eventually enjoy a visit, thanks to a $10-million grant from the Willard and Pat Walker Charitable Foundation, Springdale, AR. It will bankroll visits by up to 14,000 area schoolchildren during the museum’s inaugural year. If the kids enjoy their stay, they’ll make their parents come.

While it’s true that Alice’s enormous wealth comes from Wal-Mart, which has frequently come under attack for its treatment of workers, she’s not part of the company’s management. Two Waltons do sit on the corporate board of directorsJim and S. Robson (board chairman).

Goldberg argues that even without a formal role in the corporation’s governance, “Sam Walton’s daughter could get herself
a respectful hearing with current management. But I’ve
never heard even the faintest suggestion that she has taken
an interest in the lives of the people who work at her
father’s stores. If she sponsored an art museum as well as
a network of day-care centers for Wal-Mart employees, or a
fleet of mobile dental clinics, well, I don’t think my
complaints would have quite as much salience.”

I don’t know about “mobile dental clinics,” but a large array of substantial grants—benefiting education and social welfare in general, and the Northwest Arkansas region in particular—are listed on the websites of the Walmart Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation. (Alice is a board member for the latter, which was also the chief underwriter of Crystal Bridges.)

Goldberg appears to believe that private funding for cultural institutions and activities should be put on hold until pressing social and economic inequities are redressed: He decries Alice’s use of her Wal-Mart-derived riches “to build a billion-dollar
art museum during a terrifying recession.”

He also sees Crystal Bridges’ inclusion of works depicting social injustice as an “eloquent rebuke to the values of the company that has made the
Waltons so very wealthy.” I saw those works differently—as laudable (and somewhat surprising) evidence that, whatever the political views of the Waltons, this museum will be open to all kinds of art, without political prejudice.

Goldberg blasts Crystal Bridges as “a
compelling symbol of the chasm between the richest Americans and
everyone else.” I see it, instead, as “a compelling symbol” of the benefits of making our nation’s cultural riches available to all…including Wal-Mart’s workers, should they ever choose to make a visit.

I suspect that, eventually, many of them will.

an ArtsJournal blog