In just over 14 weeks, a new museum of American Art will open in a small town tucked away in the Arkansas Ozarks. It is being financed and built with profits made by the Wal-Mart corporation, and stocked with artwork collected by the second richest woman in the world -- Sam Walton's only daughter, Alice Walton. (Her sister-in-law Christy Walton is the world's richest woman.)
Unlike Wal-Mart stores, none of the artwork hanging on the walls of the so-called Crystal Bridges museum will be imported from China. More than 600 paintings and sculptures will be shown in a building with enough square footage to house nearly 4 football fields.
Less than a week ago, Wal-Mart announced a five-year, $20 million grant to help eliminate admission fees for all visitors at Alice's museum. It turns out that Wal-Mart CEO Mike Duke has an aesthetic appreciation for Wal-Art. "We realize that things like listening to your favorite song, seeing a beautiful painting or laying eyes on an amazing sculpture make our lives better, too," Duke said in a prepared corporate release.
The museum is a non-profit venture set up six years ago by the Walton Family Foundation. For a $5,000 contribution, you can be part of the "Benefactor Circle" of the Museum, of which $4,634 is tax deductible. For a $20,000 donation you'll get invited to a "private behind-the-scenes tour" of the exhibits, and 'intimate gatherings" with the Museum's Executive Director. It's not hard to imagine legions of Wal-Mart vendors queuing up to become Guild members, currying favor from the empire that feeds them.
But what of Wal-Mart's 2.1 million workers? Will this new museum make their lives better?
It's not hard to imagine that legions of Wal-Mart hourly workers might harbor resentment that Sam Walton's daughter has spent the last decade on what The New York Times described as a "spending spree," using what Forbes magazine called her $20.6 billion 'inherited' wealth to procure brightly-painted pieces of canvas.
Meanwhile the average Wal-Mart worker last year toiled in Action Alley for $11.75 an hour, earning roughly $18,645 per year before taxes, which is just about the current federal poverty level for a single mom with two kids. (Independent studies peg the Wal-Mart average wage below $9 per hour).
This does not have to be a Hobson's choice for the world's largest retailer: forced to choose between good wages and good art. Wal-Mart workers could have both. In a 2006 study, the Economic Policy Institute concluded that Wal-Mart could give all of its non-supervisory workers a raise of nearly $2,100 per employee (a 13% raise) without raising prices. The same researchers concluded that "Wal-Mart could definitely raise compensation for its workers and still have lower prices than its competitors."
It's regrettable that Wal-Mart does not exhibit the same passion for American-made products as its Museum does for the acquisition of American-made art. There should be a plaque at the entrance to the Crystal Bridges Museum which reads: "The Walton family wishes to thank the more than 2 million Wal-Mart associates worldwide who have helped to create the enormous wealth that has made the acquisition of this art possible. "
In her Crystal Bridges interview with The New York Times, Alice Walton said: "For years I've been thinking about what we could do as a family that could really make a difference in this part of the world." The Walton Family Foundation has pledged $800 million to the museum for an operating endowment. Alice Walton could make a difference in the world by urging Wal-Mart to match what her Family Foundation has given to this new museum, to invest in the form of higher wages for the workers who built her fortune. Wal-Mart could help its own 'associates' to live better, as their corporate slogan promises, by increasing their take home pay.
"Laying eyes on an amazing sculpture" is uplifting to a wealthy CEO--but not necessarily for a worker who can't save up enough money to fix the family's car or pay this month's mortgage.
Do we have to paint a picture for the Walton family?
Al Norman has been described by the Wall Street Journal as a "one man anti-Wal-Mart cottage industry." He is the founder of Sprawl-Busters.