The brand-new Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in the small northwest Arkansas city of Bentonville is the creation of Alice Walton, the daughter of the late Sam Walton, who founded Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the largest retailer in the world.
Alice Walton, who is worth about $21 billion, has achieved her dream of building a top-tier museum that unabashedly celebrates American art in the American heartland. Crystal Bridges, in many ways, is an aesthetic success.
It’s also a moral tragedy, very much like the corporation that provided Walton with the money to build a billion-dollar art museum during a terrifying recession. The museum is a compelling symbol of the chasm between the richest Americans and everyone else. In 2007, according to the labor economist Sylvia Allegretto, the six Walton family members on the Forbes 400 had a net worth equal to the bottom 30 percent of all Americans. The Waltons are now collectively worth about $93 billion, according to Forbes.
Many of the paintings in Crystal Bridges hang in eloquent rebuke to the values of the company that has made the Waltons so very wealthy. Three paintings, in particular, struck me as especially pointed commentaries on the perverse values of Sam Walton’s heirs.
The first was Asher B. Durand’s “Kindred Spirits,” one of the greatest paintings to emerge from the Hudson River School. It celebrates the friendship of the painter Thomas Cole and the poet William Cullen Bryant, who are portrayed standing in an enchanted Catskill gorge.
“Kindred Spirits,” bought by the Walton foundation in 2005 from the New York Public Library for an estimated $35 million, is, in the words of the critic Rebecca Solnit, a tribute to “friendship freely given, including a sense of friendship, even passion, for the American landscape itself.”
This painting — and a dozen like it, including a favorite of mine, Eastman Johnson’s “Cranberry Pickers, Nantucket” — celebrate an American landscape that has been systematically disfigured by thousands of hangar-sized warehouses bearing the Wal-Mart name. I’ve visited dozens of Wal-Marts in eight states; each one has been built without a passing thought to beauty. Or even to windows.
Then there is Norman Rockwell’s oil-on-canvas “Rosie the Riveter,” the iconic symbol of World War II U.S. industrial power. “Rosie the Riveter” is described by Crystal Bridges as a “transcendent symbol” of the “capabilities, strength and determination” of American women.
This is the sort of description that should give Alice Walton pause. After all, Wal-Mart’s female employees are not nearly so celebrated. In fact, one study shows that Wal-Mart’s female employees are paid less on average than their male counterparts, and are less likely to be promoted to management.
Looking at Rockwell’s painting, my mind wandered back to a woman I once interviewed, an employee of a Wal-Mart in Martinsburg, W.Va., who was living in her car, in the Wal-Mart parking lot. This isn’t an unknown phenomenon among Wal-Mart’s nearly 1.4 million U.S. workers, who earn, on average, $8.81 an hour, according to Ibis World, a research company.
The third painting, Jacob Lawrence’s “Ambulance Call,” serves as an obvious reminder of Wal-Mart’s unwillingness to provide basic health-care coverage to so many of its workers. Lawrence meant this street scene to be a commentary on the tragically overcrowded Harlem Hospital.
Lawrence, a man with an acute feeling for the marginalized and the poor, would, I think, be embarrassed to see this painting hanging in a museum built with Wal-Mart money, particularly now: Just three weeks before Crystal Bridges opened to the public, Wal-Mart announced that it wouldn’t provide any health insurance for future employees working fewer than 24 hours each week, and that it would be raising premiums on many full-time workers.
The company won’t say how many employees fall into the first category, but workers I’ve interviewed in several states say that managers work very hard to keep as many workers as possible on part-time status.
So how do people associated with this museum rationalize the exploitation that built it? Incredibly, by denying a connection to Wal-Mart.
The executive director of Crystal Bridges, Don Bacigalupi, argues that the museum has virtually nothing to do with the corporate behemoth just down the road. Apart from a $20 million gift from Wal-Mart that underwrites free admission, Bacigalupi said, the money that funds the museum comes from an entirely different entity, the Walton Family Foundation.
“Conflating a private individual and a private foundation with a corporation is a little misleading,” Bacigalupi told me.
Bacigalupi seems like a bright man, so he must know that this statement is itself a little misleading. The Waltons are rich because they own about half of Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart has made them rich in part because it pays its workers as little as possible.
I’m not begrudging Alice Walton her inherited wealth. What I am begrudging are her priorities. Walton has the influence to help Wal-Mart workers, especially women, earn more money and gain access to affordable health care.
But her response so far to the needs of the people whose sweat pays for her paintings is a simple one: Let them eat art.
Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist and a national correspondent for the Atlantic.