Lawrence Small has a great corporate pedigree.
For 27 years, Small was a top executive with Citicorp/Citibank. In 1991,
he became president of Fannie Mae, the bully on the housing finance
Last year, he became Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. He didn't
bother resigning from the many corporate boards on which he sits today,
including The Chubb Corp., Marriott International, Fannie Mae and
He's chairman of the financial advisory committee of TransResources
International, the parent company of Haifa Chemical, an Israeli firm.
We ran into Small this week at the Museum of American History. He had
turned over the place to Kmart. Kmart and the Smithsonian had become
"partners" in bringing to the public a traveling mobile museum featuring
exhibition titled "Wade in the Water: African-American Sacred Music
The mobile museum is a 48-foot, double expandable trailer, with giant
Kmart signs emblazoned on each side. The trailer will travel to Kmart
stores, schools and elsewhere around the nation.
At the auditorium, Small said that he was "delighted to work with Kmart
this important project" and thanked the retailing giant for its
Brent Willis, Kmart's "chief marketing officer" made some syrupy
about the benefits of diversity.
We wanted to test Willis' corporate rhetoric against the reality at
So we asked Valerie Stokes, Kmart's vice president for human resources,
and the company's highest ranking African-American, how many of the
company's 300,000 employees were African American. Stokes said she
know. What about a ballpark number? Couldn't tell you. Are any of
more than 2,100 stores unionized? No. Have there been attempts to
unionize? Couldn't tell you.
We asked Small how much money Kmart kicked in to fund the project.
know, you'll have to ask Kmart," Small said. We asked the numerous Kmart
spokespeople at the event. Don't know. Can't tell you.
We asked Small why he was turning over the Smithsonian to Kmart, a
with a poor reputation in America, in a corporate public relations
to burnish its image?
"It's not being used for corporate public relations," Small said.
Then, in the very next breath, he asked, "Why shouldn't they get
out of it? They put up the money for it."
Well, we wanted to know, is it okay for the Smithsonian, which gets
two-thirds of its budget from the federal taxpayers, to partner with
At this point, David Umansky, the Smithsonian's director of
communications, cuts in.
"I want you to understand something," Umansky says. "The Smithsonian is
not a government institution. Write this down. Legislation was passed
establishing the Smithsonian Institution as a trust instrumentality of
United States -- not the United States government -- but the United
States. It is not a part of the executive branch, it is not a part of
legislative branch, it is not a part of the judiciary. It is a separate
Got that kids? The Smithsonian gets hundreds of millions of dollars from
you and me, and they are before Congress begging for more taxpayer money
-- and it is not a part of the government.
Umansky wants to know: "Why are you so suspicious?"
Well, there should be a stark dividing line between public and private
institutions in America.
You seem to be the only person in America who believes that, he says.
That would come as a surprise to our readers. We have gotten hundreds of
responses from readers who are unhappy with corporate control of public
institutions, including when we wrote a couple of years ago about the
companies taking over a part of the Smithsonian for their exhibit on the
Alaska oil pipeline.
You can get hundreds of people upset about the sunrise, Umansky
So, any public institution should be allowed to take private corporate
If it's used properly, absolutely, Umansky says. For the Smithsonian,
there is no problem.
It's been 20 minutes now, and we still haven't gotten an answer to how
much Kmart spent for this little public relations stunt. Umansky doesn't
like the persistence. "Why are you being such an asshole?" he asks.
Finally, Umansky gets us an answer on the funding -- Kmart put up $2
million in cash and in kind -- about $500,000 in cash.
At a press conference at the National Press Club last year, Small was
asked about undue corporate influence over the operations of the
"There is a difference between providing the funding and having an
endorsement or having a commercial relationship with the museum," he
"So, if it's philanthropy, I don't think there's any problem with it."
In this instance, and in many others, the Smithsonian has crossed the
line. By allowing the Kmart logo and the Smithsonian logo to be
all over the press releases, press kits and trailer last week, by giving
Kmart's "chief marketing officer" a stage to spout empty corporate
platitudes, the Smithsonian Institution was putting its seal of approval
on the company.
Every major new exhibit at the Smithsonian over the past couple of years
has been funded by a major American corporation or industry -- the
Pipeline exhibit funded by the oil companies, the insect zoo funded by
Orkin, and on down the line. The place has become a museum of American
Earlier this year, an exhibit on the American Presidency, sponsored by
Cisco Systems and Chevy Chase Bank, among others, was deemed so
that it had to bump an exhibit on the work of the late folk singer and
anti-corporate rabble rouser Woody Guthrie. The Guthrie exhibit was
scheduled to run through the spring, but got pulled for the one about
Through Small and his predecessors, the corporate state has overtaken
Smithsonian. Congress should take it back for the people.
Congress should demand that as a condition of forking over hundreds of
millions of taxpayers' dollars every year, the Smithsonian should kick
It's time to clean house.
Russell Mokhiber is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime
Reporter. Robert Weissman is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based
Multinational Monitor. They are co-authors of Corporate Predators: The
Hunt for MegaProfits and the Attack on Democracy (Monroe, Maine: Common
Courage Press, 1999).
(c) Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman