Inside This Issue - Opinion
Alice Walton makes a difference
January 9th, 2012
by David Pinto, Editor
Jack Shewmaker, the legendary Walmart executive, once remarked that giving a million people one dollar each would have little impact on events.
On the other hand, he continued, give one million dollars to one person and it transforms that person into someone who has the capacity to make a difference.
Someone has given Alice Walton much more than a million dollars. And, to her credit, she has put at least part of that money to good use. Specifically, she has been the guiding spirit and financial benefactor behind Crystal Bridges, the wonderful American art museum that opened in Bentonville, Ark., in November.
It would be difficult to overstate the impact Crystal Bridges is beginning to exert on Northwest Arkansas. It has brought the works of serious American artists to a part of the country that has lived too long without exposure to great art. It has provided children and their parents with a view of America many never before had. It has furnished residents and visitors with new career options, new vocational choices, new educational avenues to pursue. It has provided a glimpse of an America many people never dreamed existed. It has done all this in the less than the two months it has been open.
Yet self-anointed and would-be critics continue to snipe at the museum and its creator. Indeed, Alice Walton, rather than being praised for her dedication, her vision, her commitment, her strong feelings about art and the people of Northwest Arkansas, has been vilified because she has not used her fortune to provide comprehensive health care programs for Walmart’s associates. Perhaps, some critics suggest, she and her siblings should turn over their entire fortunes for a cause more worthy than a museum, perhaps using their money to secure for Walmart’s associates higher salaries for the work most of them willingly do.
This logic, extended to any museum, art gallery, concert hall or theater complex ever built with corporate profits, would effectively close most cultural institutions throughout the country, closing as well the door to learning and culture for the people who frequent them, and changing the lives of the people influenced by them.
The latest attack comes from a reporter who works for Bloomberg News, a news organization, it should be noted, founded and built by the billionaire who is currently mayor of New York City. We will resist the obvious temptation to suggest that Mayor Bloomberg should resign as mayor of New York City because his fortune helped him get the job, and instead use his riches to help New York City’s poor.
The American way is to reward capitalism. There’s nothing wrong with rewarding capitalism. Alice Walton could have used her money to build or buy a villa in the south of France. She could have bought an island in the Caribbean. Maybe she has. Maybe she intends to. Nonetheless, she deserves credit for using her position, power and some of her inherited wealth to bring to Northwest Arkansas an advantage that many urban dwellers, including Mayor Bloomberg, have long taken for granted: The availability of a world-class museum.
It would be easy to tear apart the Bloomberg News article. Easy but pointless. The writer calls the museum "a moral tragedy, very much like the corporation that provided Walton with the money to build a billion-dollar art museum during a recession." As though building the museum during an economic boom time would somehow be more noble.
Further, the writer insists on confusing Walmart with the museum. For example, he notes that the museum might be "the only building associated with Walmart that is devoted solely to American-made goods," as though it is a crime to sell merchandise made outside the United States, as Apple, to cite just one example, routinely does. One wonders how the writer justifies using an iPhone.
Indeed, the author goes so far as to cite the fact that a Walmart employee in Martinsburg, W. Va., he once interviewed was forced to live in her car. The implication: Had their been no museum, this employee might have been able to afford a real home.
Walmart isn’t perfect — or close to perfect. Who is? But to group some of Walmart’s more-questionable practices with Alice Walton’s laudatory pursuit of a world-class museum is to denigrate even the noblest of instincts because they have been funded partly with corporate profits.
One can’t help but wonder what Mike Bloomberg thinks of this kind of journalism — or whether he can afford the luxury of thinking about it. In the end, one thing is certain: Jack Shewmaker was right. Alice Walton has used her fortune in a productive and game-changing way.