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A group that seeks improved working conditions for Walmart employees took issue over "the fact that Walton has spent millions of dollars on a museum while her family's organization, Walmart, recently raised health care premiums and has capped salaries for many of its employees." Responding to such criticism, Abigail R. Esman wrote for forbes.com that "Ms. Walton has done everything absolutely right. She has done for little Bentonville what one would want every one of her socio-economic comrades to do: used her wealth to create job opportunities, enhance education, and support the arts (at a time when Washington is cutting back)."
We'd like to have heard Alice Walton's own response, but she seldom submits to interviews, and, through a spokesman, she turned down the Times' request as she has many others.
It's not uncommon in America for very rich people who've been ruthless in business dealings, indifferent at best to the suffering of their employees, to become huge supporters of art and education in their later years. Fricks, Mellons, Carnegies, Rockefellers — they were not nice guys necessarily, but gifts have merit independent of the giver, and America would be worse without the contributions to culture that such men have made.
The Times asked a couple of Arkansas historians to assess the impact of Alice. Is this museum big doings or what? Tom W. Dillard, who is also the head of special collections for the University of Arkansas Libraries in Fayetteville, wrote:
"I don't know of anyone who has ever made such a large and meaningful gift to the people of Arkansas (and the nation, too). I guess the argument could be made that [the late] Don Reynolds, through his foundation, has contributed mightily to non-profits throughout the state — but his gifts, even when taken together, do not have the dramatic impact that Crystal Bridges has. One might say that Mrs. Jeanette Rockefeller, before and during her time as first lady, broke the arts ground by helping transform the Arkansas Arts Center into a real arts museum — and creating the Arkansas Arts Mobile. I can recall as a child going to see the Arkansas Art Mobile when it visited rural Montgomery County deep in the Ouachita Mountains. But Crystal Bridges is a gift of a whole different order.
"The northern states are full of arts centers and museums endowed by 19th century Robber Barons. I don't think the Waltons are robber barons, but if they are, they're OUR ROBBER BARONS. After serving as a 'colony' for more than a century during which our natural resources and labor were shipped north, it is about time that Arkansas received some payback. ... A museum cannot transform Arkansas, but it can, and I believe will, have a positive impact on the way Arkansans view their state — and, hopefully, themselves."
Dr. Sondra Gordy, a professor at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, also recalled the Rockefeller gifts to the Arts Center, and the support of the arts and education that came from Lily Peter of Marvell. "But Crystal Bridges tops anything that was done in the past," she said.
"All of us who teach Arkansas history know the state was saddled by an image that outsiders gave us. But how can people come to beautiful Northwest Arkansas, and see that magnificent gallery, and go away thinking we're a backwater place. ... The Rockefellers campaigned to eradicate hookworm. I'm for any of the rich who are willing to share their wealth, even if I may not approve of the way they made their money. People have looked at the South for years and said we need something like this [Crystal Bridges]. I'm happy to get it anyway we can get it."