Goldberg: Wal-Mart Heiress’s Museum a Moral Blight - Bloomberg
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.
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.