Art council should refuse Hanesbrands money

by Jim Longworth

Last week the Arts Council of Winston-Salem announced a plan to transform the Sawtooth building into a multi-use center for the arts. The proposal, which includes a new theater, would cost approximately $11 million.

Thus far, the council has raised $13 million for its overall campaign, of which about $5.5 million has been set aside for the Sawtooth project. That means President Milton Rhodes must raise another $6 million to turn the Sawtooth revitalization into a reality.

The good news is that more than 500 individuals and corporations have contributed to the Arts Council campaign. The bad news is that one of those contributors is Hanesbrands, which has pledged $2 million. Memo to Mr. Rhodes: Do us all a favor and refuse the Hanesbrands money.

Politicians do this all the time when it is discovered that certain campaign funds are tainted. Hillary has returned money; so has Barack. Of course, I realize that the arts council is not a political campaign, but it is a high-profile campaign, and no one in the public eye wants a black eye for accepting contributions from unethical or illegal sources.

True, the Catholic church used to accept Mafia tithes willingly, but that’s okay because mob money helped the church build enough wealth so they could pay off victims of sexual abuse in later years. But I digress in my sarcasm.

The dilemma facing the arts council is daunting. After all, private-sector giving to the arts is down by half a billion dollars in this country, and most community groups would be hard pressed to look any gift horse in the mouth.

So is it fair to pressure President Rhodes to take a stand against a company that has economically devastated some 14,000 families by sending their jobs overseas? You bet it is.

Accepting millions of dollars from a company that laid off 1,000 people in the City of the Arts and canceled subsidized medical benefits for retirees would place the arts council at odds with its own mission, which is, in part, to “aid economic development.”

And the Winston-Salem City Council could face a moral dilemma of its own when Rhodes asks the governing body to cough up $3 million for the Sawtooth project. Thus far, city council has failed to initiate a non-binding resolution denouncing Hanesbrands for the devastation it has wrought, so this is an opportunity for Mayor Allen Joines and company to finally make a substantive point (albeit it a collateral one) by refusing to allocate more money to the arts council unless the Hanesbrands pledge is renounced.

It is time for both the arts council and the city council to draw a line in the sand.

But doing so would require some personally awkward moments for the principals involved. Mayor Joines’ wife Peggy is chairman of the arts council board, and Hanesbrands Vice President Kevin Hall is a member. My friend Peggy would just have to understand, and Kevin Hall would just have to go.

By refusing a major cash donation from Hanesbrands, Milton Rhodes would become perhaps the first such arts official in the country to stand against corporate greed under the guise of global competition. He would also make a stand on behalf of the thousands of workers whose jobs were sent to foreign countries just so CEO Richard Noll could increase profits and pad his salary. And, ironically, Rhodes would also be striking a blow for the slave-wage workers who have taken our jobs. For example, it was recently reported that Hanesbrands has now refused to bargain with the union at its Dominican Republic factory, after having promised to do so with the Workers Rights Consortium over a year ago.

The question is, will Rhodes have the backbone in a bad economy to publicly rebuke Hanesbrands? If he does, then his actions would make national news and set a precedent for principle over profits.

The arts are a vital part of any culture, and help to define our very civilization. But if the only way for artistic endeavor to flourish is to be dependent upon funds from corporations that hold the human condition in contempt, then it is better for us to go without new theaters.

Hanesbrands must learn that it cannot buy respectability by donating to local arts groups while it disrespects its own local workforce.

Shakespeare noted that “all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” Perhaps that was a harbinger of today’s global competition and, thusly, a justification for Hanesbrands’ outsourcing American jobs while supporting the arts at home. Or perhaps it was simply a recognition of the fact that all of us are performers on life’s stage, and that we will ultimately be judged by how we act toward our fellow man. I tend to believe the latter.

I also believe that Milton Rhodes is in a position to make a decision that will further uphold the council’s mission, which is to “enrich quality of life and develop social capital.”

Our city leaders, Rhodes included, must stop turning a blind eye to the abuses of Hanesbrands, and show some sympathy for the thousands of people whose lives were disrupted due to the greed of Richard Noll and his directors. We must stop naming Hanesbrands personnel to local community boards just so we can hit them up for a financial contribution. We must stop asking high-ranking Hanesbrands officers to speak at important civic events or ask them to chair high-profile committees as if they were corporate role models. If not, then we are at the very least complicit in the actions of Hanesbrands towards their former employees.

Winston-Salem boasts of having founded the first arts council in the nation. I only hope we will make history again by being the first city to show solidarity with displaced patrons of the arts, when President Rhodes refuses to accept any money from Hanesbrands.

Jim Longworth is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Fridays at 6:30 a.m. on ABC 45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 10 p.m. on WMYV (cable channel 15).