Wal-Mart Tackles (Food and) Art Deserts

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Trading near its pre-Great-Vortex high, Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT) recently announced that it will arrive in Chicago soon, opening a "Wal-Mart Express" on the city's South Side. Wal-mart Express stores won't have all of the offerings of their behemoth brethern, and they're intended to close a "convenience gap" with smaller grocery chains and drug stores. But they're also part of a larger strategy to drive growth in American "food deserts," a familiar term in Chicago (where Mayor Rahm has promised to increase accesibility to grocery stores) and in many of the country's large cities.

And now, corporate strategy has bled into the way that Alice Walton, heiress to the Wal-Mart fortune, spends money on art.

Kind of.

Bentonville, Arkansas, Wal-Mart's headquarters and definite culture desert, has become the site of the Crystal Bridges Museum. Designed by Moshe Safdie, the new institution hopes to "create connections – to art, to nature, and to others. Our educational programs will bring to life works of art for guests of all ages." That's according to its website. Of course, as with the entrance of anything labeled "Walton" into any market, there's cause for debate.

Over the last few weeks, critics have taken up sides for and against the palatial 50,000 square foot museum, which has acquired iconic works like Andy Warhol's Dolly Parton and Norman Rockwell's Rosie the Riveter. And by more than several accounts, the museum will likely become a must-see for lovers of American art.

<img src="/media/images/user_1465/rosie_large.jpg" />

At the same time, it's been controversial since Alice Walton first started nabbing works for the permanent collection. Why, in the middle of an earth-rattling recession, would Walton sink so much money into a museum? Should we lament the fact that the world's largest corporation is associated, even tangentially, with so much priceless art? Though Walton has attempted to create space between the museum and the corporation, for some (including your humble correspondent) it seems impossible to think of Crystal Bridges as divorced from Wal-Mart. And with good reason. The museum is barely two miles from the company's headquarters, and the Walton Family Foundation has invested more than $1.2 billion (BILLION!) to create an endowment.

Jeffrey Goldberg, writing for Bloomberg Businessweek, calls the museum a "moral blight." His claim arises from precisely this inability to separate Crystal Bridges from Wal-Mart. And his commentary represents arguably the most scathing critique of the institution, pointing to inevitable contradictions between artistic representation and corporate culture:

I suspect it is also the only building associated with Wal-Mart that is devoted solely to American-made goods [...] The goods in this case consist of the best American paintings, photographs and sculptures that Walton could buy. And given her net worth, the art in her museum is very, very good. The collection is comprehensive and well-curated: There are Marsden Hartleys and Thomas Hart Bentons, Georgia O’Keeffes and Hans Hofmanns. But 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.

He goes on to levy an acid criticism of the museum's relationship to the legacy of the Waltons. Its most moving and spot-on point arguably relates to the acquisition of Rockwell's Rosie, long a totemic object that celebrates equality of rights for women in the United States. (Ironically, Wal-Mart sells a different and equally well-known version of the work as a poster--for $99). Here's Goldberg again:

“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, West Virginia, 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.

To boot: Wal-Mart has spent a lot of the previous year fighting off a class-action suit related to its practices regarding discrimination in the promotion of women. Goldberg's point is well taken, though I don't know if I can follow him to the point of accusing the museum of being a "moral blight" on an otherwise already pretty culturally blighted place in the country.

After all, is there any difference (other than in the size of the investment) between corporate sponsorship and underwriting of extant museums and the purchase of such a huge trove by Alice Walton? The acquisition of works like Rosie doesn't change their meaning--and perhaps its very proximity to the headquarters of Wal-Mart will produce a productive conversation about equal pay.

That's optimistic at best and naive at worst. But if one has faith in the arts, then shouldn't one also have faith in the trasnformative potential in art--in the idea that the consumption of O'Keefe and Eakins and Holzer in the Bentonville desert might have some kind of positive impact? I'm not suggesting that merely being next to any of the works in Crystal Bridges (and by the way, the name is awful--it sounds exactly like a corporate museum) will change Wal-Mart overnight. But at the very least, the museum opens up an interesting space for a dialogue between the world's largest corporation and (now) one of the world's best collections of American art.

Does this mean we should all head down to Bentonville for spring break?

You can follow The Humanist at @TastySpoonful

Fool blogger AJ Aronstein does not own any shares in Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT).

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