Here’s something I didn’t realize yesterday: Walmart wasn’t just sponsoring the opening reception for the National Geographic Museum’s new exhibit, America I Am: The African American Imprint. They’ve actually underwritten the whole thing, which is in the middle of a four-year, ten-city tour that’s already stopped in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Atlanta and moves next to St. Louis. When mastermind Tavis Smiley came up with the idea, he told the august crowd at least night’s reception, he traveled to Bentonville, met with his friend Lee Scott, and walked away with a check large enough to make it all happen (they’ve declined to divulge exactly how large, but I’d put it in the eight-digit range).
Clearly, it was a good deal for Walmart too: There are few people more bulletproof against charges of racial discrimination than Smiley, and having the radio host profusely thank Walmart for its generosity is helpful in shutting down would-be critics. But in no city, perhaps, has the exhibit been more helpful than Washington, which is in the midst of a heavy charm offensive to smooth the entry for at least four stores. All you needed to do was watch last night’s performance to realize how helpful.
Along with the exhibit’s curator and the director of the Museum, Smiley shared the microphone with three people: Walmart regional general manager Alex Barron, senior vice president for advertising Tony Rogers, and executive vice president for government relations Leslie Dach, all with gracious white smiles for the thanks and praise showered upon them. Dach got to be the one to announce his company’s gift of 19,000 free tickets to the children of Washington: “If any of you have folks you think would like to see this exhibit and need that kind of help,” he told the crowd, “please see me or any of my colleagues over here and we’ll see what we can do to help.”
Mayor Vince Gray soon arrived, and Barron stopped the program for a photo op. “My PR folks are telling me that we want to take a picture,” he said, looking hopefully towards Gray. “If the Mayor would honor us with his presence…great, thanks sir!” Gray, of course, didn’t have much of a choice: He couldn’t not stand with the creators of the biggest exhibit on black history ever created. Even if it meant also standing and smiling with the folks he’s asking to pay $12 an hour as a starting salary for employees, which is three dollars more than Walmart wants to pay.
Museum director Susan Norton had the most honest quote of the evening, with regard to Walmart’s presence. “It’s great timing, with you just announcing that you’re coming into D.C.,” she said. “This is an important exhibit for everyone.”