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Walters' Gilded Age gala belies Baltimore's blue-collar roots

This year the Walters Art Museum is celebrating its 80th anniversary with a stunning exhibition of works purchased by William and Henry Walters during their lifetime and bequeathed to the city in a major act of public philanthropy.

The annual donor gala that marked the exhibition's opening was a masked Venetian ball reminiscent of socialite parties in the early 20th century, and the celebration included another event called Rye Rocks at the Walters, which encouraged attendees to dress in "Roaring '20s" attire and drink rye whiskey cocktails to celebrate the so-called "Gilded Age."

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Both events were inspired by the fact that William Walters built much of his wealth through the distillery business. Walters' son Henry amassed an even greater fortune that placed him among the wealthiest Americans of his time. He often vied with J. P. Morgan in the pursuit of art treasures from around the world.

But the enormous wealth amassed by a small number of Americans during the late 19th and early 20th centuries was often built on the backs of the poor, immigrants and African Americans.

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Sweat shops, unregulated child labor, alcohol abuse and a disproportionate share of disease and death were the plight of many working-class families in America during the so-called Gilded Age.

The socioeconomic conditions of that period were not unlike the current situation, in which a small fraction of the population enjoys the majority of the wealth.

It is unfortunate that the Walters chose to commemorate the philanthropy of its founders by celebrating the excesses of the Gilded Age. Such an emphasis on their wealthy lifestyle is not likely to attract a wider audience of middle- or working-class viewers to the museum and it reinforces a disconnect with the city's working-class roots.

Baltimore is built on a history of blue-collar citizens who were proud of their ancestors, many of whom suffered under the economic disparities of the Gilded Age. Clearly some aspects of that period are not worthy of celebration.

Gerard Marconi, Baltimore.

The writer is a third-generation descendant of Italian immigrants to Baltimore and a former volunteer at the Walters Art Museum.


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