Commodity Culture: Wal-Mart heiress Alice L. Walton just announced she'll be building a new American-art museum, Crystal Bridges, in Wal-Mart company town, Bentonville, Arkansas. It'll open in May 2009, and among its holdings will be a $35+ million painting by 19th-century artist Asher B. Durand (the most ever paid for an American artwork). While the arts can always use generous patronage, artist Mark Vallen writes that:
Wal-Mart Inc. is hardly a credible or benevolent voice when it comes to the public interest, and delivering the nation’s art treasures into its gapping maw makes me shudder. While the corporate press and apolitical art critics fawn over the art world’s latest benefactor, they are likely to forget to mention the following… Wal-Mart Inc. has a terrible record when it comes to the mistreatment of its US employees, and a ghastly history of exploiting workers in other parts of the world. There is no better example of how politics is intertwined with art than the spectacle of an art museum being founded by a rapacious corporation well known for exporting US jobs overseas and profiting from foreign sweat shop labor.
And indeed it's ironic that a Walton would focus on American art, considering Wal-Mart's "Made in America" mantra has given way to a sea of imported chintz and wages so low its employees must turn to government assistance to get by. If there's a social realist wing of Crystal Bridges, you can bet it won't depict this kind of reality.

But is this new? Of course not. Since the Medicis and on up until present-day funding by the Altria's and Absolut's of the world, sponsorship of the arts by the wealthy and well-connected has raised suspicion.

As it should: when culture is privately or corporately owned, what happens to public access? With a demonstratedly conservative company like Wal-Mart providing the funding, in what context will the art be exhibited? As the artists intended or with a certain ideological spin? Plans to double the size of the 4.2-million-acre Mall of America (now branded with the museumy acronym MOA in local ads) initially included an art museum, but now will feature, among a casino, an indoor golf course, and "Italian canal with gondolas surrounded by dancing foundations," a concert hall and "multi-cultural exhibits." How will such an organization present culture? As a value unto itself, or as another value-engineered component of an integrated branding scheme?

Paranoid? Check out the example of Clear Channel Exhibitions, run by notorious GOP funder, radio and billboard behemoth, and anti-peace campaigner Clear Channel Communications. Its exhibitions have covered everything from Chicano art to art of the Vatican. In its recent Vatican show, Robert Pincus writes that it presented:
history as the Vatican would want it to be presented. In other words, a squeaky-clean version of their legacy with no recounting of the Machiavellian political dealings and corruption from centuries past, when the papal state was a major political force in Europe. This show is surely in step with the company's own's bottom-line vision of exhibitions. As Clear Channel chairman and CEO Brian Becker said back in a December 2001 news release: "The acquisition of BBH Exhibits represents our commitment to capturing a substantial share of the family entertainment market, including exhibitions, large-scale events and other family-oriented, education-based experiences."
Clear Channel Exhibitions promotes itself as "the world leader in providing blockbuster educational and entertaining family traveling exhibits, and a developer of large-scale, educational touring mega-events," yet as Pincus points out "nowhere in the promotional words from the corporation do we see the word 'art' or the phrase 'high-quality art exhibition.' The promotional phrases are all about size and scale." As Walker curator Philippe Vergne says, artists provide "the unnameable," works that are "anomalies in a culture run by Cartesian logic." So, what happens if the mavens of commodity culture get a hold of real culture?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Being an exhibit technician For BBH exhibits in 1998, I can honestly correct two problems with this article, (that has also clued me in on some scary things) 1. Chicano (a show I personally didn’t work but new of...) was in existence 3 years before CCE bought out BBH. 2 The Quote "the world leader in providing blockbuster educational and entertaining family traveling exhibits, and a developer of large-scale, educational touring mega-events," was also original BBH material as of 1997 and not a statement created by CCE .I am in no way a supporter of corporations whose goal is to buy everything it can and operate as these established and trusted companies under new names, while we sit here and assume that all they want to do is to make a better exhibit that will educate and entertain our children. While all along the goal of the CEO’s is to push some other agenda that (in my opinion can be a dangerous weapon) can reach the eyes and ears of our children through some boardroom perspective of how things should be taught,understood and believed.