The Crystal Bridges Museum and the Implication of Tainted Money

Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton, youngest child of founder Sam Walton, has spent a significant portion of her wealth to establish the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas. Crystal Bridges is, of course, trying to build its collection, and is well situated geographically to attract art lovers who might have a more difficult time reaching museums on the east and west coasts.

I first became aware of Crystal Bridges when it made an offer to purchase the painting “The Gross Clinic” from Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia. Painted by renowned local artist Thomas Eakins, the painting had hung for years in an out of the way area of the Hospital, reportedly poorly lit and viewed by relatively few.

When the purchase offer was made, one might have thought that the Museum was planning to purchase and move the Liberty Bell to Arkansas. The resulting furor led to a local effort to save the painting that was quite suddenly labeled a “Philadelphia treasure” (that few had ever heard of) and the day was saved. The painting now hangs in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

During the efforts to raise money to purchase the painting and keep it in Philadelphia, there was an undercurrent that Alice was somehow using tainted money, coming as it did from the profits generated by Wal-Mart. No matter that she wanted to showcase the painting in a way that would expose it to many more museum visitors. Reading the news accounts, there was a kind of feeling that any museum founded by Wal-Mart money was somehow not fit for the purpose.

Time has passed, but not that sentiment. Just this week, the New York Times wrote an article describing Alice Walton’s plans to stage an exhibition in September, focusing on small town artists who otherwise would have a hard time getting their art to be seen and appreciated. Curators from Crystal Bridges are visiting some 1,000 small town artists across the country, viewing their works and determining which ones might be part of the exhibition.

As the Times wrote in their article…

“The goal of their unusual art hunt — an old-fashioned, Kerouacian canvass of the country — is to find 100 unrecognized artists, culled from a list of more than 10,000, to feature in September in an ambitious show that will represent Ms. Walton’s first attempt to plant her institution’s flag firmly in the world of contemporary art.

“Jennifer Doyle, an English professor and contemporary art specialist at the University of California, Riverside, said she saw the idea as a challenge by a nonurban museum to the art-world dominance of New York and Los Angeles. Bentonville has a population of 38,000, smaller than the average weekly attendance at the Museum of Modern Art.’If you want to assert your own set of cultural values, then this seems like a grandly ambitious scheme to try to do that,’ Ms. Doyle said. ‘It’s almost like a census.’

“She added: ‘Personally I wish it wasn’t Walmart money that was doing this. But I guess it would be the shooting-fish-in-a-barrel critique to point out that Walmart is often blamed for hurting the sorts of places — small-town, middle-class America — where they’re now looking for this kind of individual expression.’ ”

Well, now. I wonder if Professor Doyle was involved at all in The Gross Clinic dustup.

I have found in life that things are seldom as good or as bad as people make them out to be. And Wal-Mart is no exception.

Yes, they don’t pay their employees particularly well. Yes, their employee benefits are not the best.
But their prices are low, and many consumers depend upon that. Studies have shown that, when Wal-Mart enters a new county, retail wages decline by 3-5 %, but prices decline by 12-15%. For consumers in the lower regions of the income scale, those price savings are crucial to feeding and clothing their families. Low prices come from low retailer costs.

This is why then-Mayor Daly in Chicago exercised the sole veto in his long tenure — overturning the City Council’s decision to ban Wal-Mart from the city. The mayor of Washington, DC just followed suit this past year. The fact is that many of our citizens need those low prices, and they are well served by the likes of Wal-Mart.

Professor Doyle is correct when she says that Wal-Mart “gets blamed” for hurting small town America and the middle class, but the facts suggest otherwise.

Perhaps quaint Main Street shops have succumbed to the “big box” stores, but Wal-Mart is hardly the only big box out there. Nobody is forced to work at Wal-Mart, but they attract many more applicants than they have positions available. Nobody is forced to shop at Wal-Mart, but more people shop there than anywhere else.

This is America. Wal-Mart has a legitimate enterprise. Alice Walton has a legitimate inheritance. Crystal Bridges is a legitimate Museum of Art. And there are countless small-town residents who will benefit from having access to the art — including the art of small- town artists.