The Great American Sell-Out

By Reclaim Democracy staff
September 2001

The management of one of our national treasures — the Smithsonian Museum — threatens to plumb new depths in pimping the public domain to corporate interests. A preliminary deal awaiting consideration by the Smithsonian board of regents would sell General Motors Inc. naming rights for the institute’s new hall of transportation for $10 million.

Want fries with that? The Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum is replacing its current food vendor, Guest Services Inc., with McDonald’s Corporation– a partnership providing the museum with a potential $34 million and McDonald’s with its projected busiest site.

The two deals are just the latest on the Smithsonian menu. It’s easy money, but ethically troublesome when considering that two-thirds of the financial support for the Smithsonian comes from taxpayers.

Professional sports were the proving ground for such corporate moves. Today, corporate financing and naming stadiums are routine. A recent addition to corporate logos on uniforms, the Jumbotron and banners pulled by small planes above the game, is the corporate-sponsored play-by-play, subjecting fans to the Jiffy-Lube Double Play and the Geico Direct Call to the Bullpen.

And let’s not forget the public schools turned into corporate marketing venues. School rooftops are the trendy locus for cell phone towers. Schools blame budget concerns as cause for signing away public property and children’s health with lucrative deals that submit children to Channel One in the classroom, Pepsi in the hallway, and McDonald’s at the lunch table. Teachers receive free, corporate-sponsored lesson supplements (let’s learn about the environment from Exxon-Mobil!). And ads adorn buses, book covers and folders, as well as the school cafeteria.

Home isn’t immune–they’re after my son. I’ve labored to clothe him without making him a billboard, but with difficulty. Our culture now readily accepts that children will be emblazoned from head to pinky toe with corporate logos and embed them into their personal image as they grow.

Philanthropy, once viewed as altruistic, in countless cases has degenerated to a nauseating and socially offensive quid pro quo. We generally suspect there’s a catch.

But across the country, there is a move to reclaim public space:

  • A bill pending in the Oregon legislature would prohibit naming public buildings after corporations.
  • Some school districts aren’t renewing exclusive corporate contracts and others are refusing them outright.
  • Corporate bidders for naming rights to four subway stations in Boston have been scared away by public outcry.
  • In protest of further commercialization, some people are refusing to pay new recreation fees for access to public land.
  • The Denver Post has chosen to call the Broncos’ new, publicly subsidized home “Mile-High Stadium” rather than its official, corporate moniker.

So what about the Smithsonian? Ethical concerns about previous major donor agreements have curators and researchers waging a Dump Small sticker campaign, demanding ouster of Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence Small, a former Citibank executive. Responding to decisions such as K-Mart’s being allowed to sponsor the Smithsonian’s traveling African American sacred music exhibit, The Smithsonian Congress of Scholars has weighed in against Secretary Small in a memo to the regents.

“Of all the acquisitions made by the Smithsonian in over 150 years,” it states, “the most significant by far is the trust of the American people…Secretary Small’s decisions circumvent established decision-making procedures and seem certain to commit our museum to unethical relationships with private donors. These actions threaten to change fundamentally the nature of the museum, while ignoring the broad consultation and open public discussion called for by such changes.”

According to the scholars whose work supports the Smithsonian, “responsible” practice in the past has meant that major changes undergo professional review and scrutiny. They write: “Newly adopted projects, such as the creation of a hall of fame of individual Americans, renaming the museum, and the reconfiguring of exhibition space in the museum, have not been subject to the deliberative procedures applied to all proposals, independent of the source of the ideas or the source of the financial support for the project.”

Nowhere in the U.S. Constitution are corporations mentioned, yet our Supreme Court bestowed upon them rights of persons in an 1886 decision, Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad. Perhaps the people behind corporations think that status justifies “corporate citizenship.” It’s time to declare our rights to the public realm and reclaim them.

America could use another good rebellion.