With images of Real Housewives of New York’s Ramona Singer still lingering in my mind after the sponsor ad for “Kris pino grigio” popped up in my NPR Media Player, my attention was sharply redirected by the story that followed: “Wal-Mart Heiress Brings Art Museum to the Ozarks.”
The story was referring to the November 11th opening of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas. Funded by Alice Walton, daughter of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton and Forbes magazines’s 10th richest person in America in 2011 (with Christy Walton and Bill Walton toping out at 4th and 9th), the collection housed in Crystal Bridges, aka the “Wal-Mart Museum” is impressive in its breadth. With works ranging from classic colonial, all the way to modern and contemporary, key players in American Art of all eras seems to be well represented.
For this endeavor, the Walton Family Foundation fronted 1.2 billion dollars, and 20 million dollars were donated from Wal-Mart foundation. It has been posed as one of the “best collections of American art in the world,” but Wal-Mart’s involvement in the project has many critics skeptical about the ethical implications. With Wal-Mart’s notoriously controversial employment and labor practices, what complications arise from stamping the company’s name onto a multi-million dollar project for the arts?
The concept for the museum is to allow visitors to experience art and nature together; this is reflected internally via the architecture itself as well as externally through the trails for hiking and biking. Again using my vivid imagination, for some reason “Crystal Bridges” immediately evokes scenes straight out of The Wizard of Oz, with Dorothy and crew skipping down the yellow brick road towards the glass walls of Emerald City.
All roads, it seems, point to capitalism.
My immediate reaction to Crystal Bridges was that of concern. To put my cards face up, as a decidedly liberal-leaning Californian, I take major issue with corporate practices that prove to be overly advantageous for the the people in charge. But the realist in me knows that the issue requires more thought than simply blanketing Crystal Bridges with the statement that everything associated with Wal-Mart is, and I’ll put it bluntly: the opposite of good.
For me, the controversial element of this philanthropic project creates a space to raise key questions for the art world as well as the American economy. First, what does this museum mean for curating the narrative of “American Art?” Moreover, how does Wal-Mart’s name and their Bentonville, Arkansas location affect this? Second, how does this call attention to, and perhaps highlight and complicate the arguments presented by the Occupy movement?
As curator of Crystal Bridges Kevin Murphy points out, American business tycoons are no foreign entity to foundations and museums: Henry Huntington (railroad), Andrew Carnegie (steel), Eli Broad (oil). Money it seems, doesn’t always come controversy free. “Do people not go to The Huntington because Henry Huntington was a railroad baron, was discriminatory in his practices and treated workers unfairly?” he said in the interview with NPR. But with Wal-Mart, are these negative connotations too fresh in our minds? Why, now, does it matter where the money came from?
In America, we are a self-righteous bunch. We are founded on freedom and strive for idealism. Nobody tells us what to do: we eat what we want, we drive what we want, we buy what we want, we do what we want. Capitalism isn’t perfect, but is any economic system? Yes, Bentonville’s economy stands to be bolstered by the jobs created by Crystal Bridges. Yes, art won’t solve the unemployment crisis. But if someone is willing to curate a expansive collection highlighting some of our country’s great creators? I stand by the fact that the arts is a tool for fostering cultural knowledge.
In an imperfect world, it it really such a bad thing to have one more outlet for arts education, and at what cost?