Last week, the Guggenheim Museum in New York became the third cultural institution — and the first in the United States — to announce that it would not accept money from the Sacklers. London’s National Portrait Gallery and Tate galleries made similar decisions earlier in the week. A smaller institution, the South London Gallery, returned a Sackler gift in 2018.
The development came on the heels of a new federal lawsuit filed by 600 cities, counties and Native American tribes alleging that eight Sackler family members were involved in deceptive marketing practices of the family-owned pharmaceutical company, Purdue Pharma, and its blockbuster painkiller drug, OxyContin.
The Sackler name has graced the walls of blue-chip cultural and educational institutions around the world, including the Smithsonian, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Guggenheim Museum in New York, and several museums in London. But the Sackler legacy is now at risk, as a result of lawsuits naming the family members behind Purdue Pharma. The company has settled a lawsuit with the state of Oklahoma that will require Purdue and the family to pay $270 million for research, education and treatment.
In addition to legal action, protests in the museums, amplified on social media, have brought attention to the source of the Sackler wealth. Photographer Nan Goldin organized demonstrations at the Guggenheim, the Met and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington to pressure the institutions to sever ties with the donors.
The Smithsonian, which opened the Sackler Gallery in 1987, said that it is contractually bound to keep the family name on the Asian art museum and that it has no plans to return the original donation. Arthur Sackler donated 1,000 works and $4 million to the Smithsonian years before OxyContin was launched.
The Smithsonian has received about $7.5 million from various Sackler family members since the museum opened.
“At this time, we have no plans to approach any member of the Sackler family for a donation,” a Smithsonian spokeswoman said Monday.
Arthur Sackler’s widow, Jillian Sackler, said last month that it was “a gross injustice” to blame her late husband for the opioid crisis. “Arthur was never involved in Purdue Pharma, a company owned by his brothers Mortimer and Raymond and their families; he had nothing to do with OxyContin,” she said.
Purdue Pharma has repeatedly said that it is being unfairly targeted and that it supports initiatives in law enforcement, education and health care aimed at addressing the opioid crisis.
The Met said it was continuing to review its donation policies. Daniel Weiss, the museum’s president and chief executive, noted that nonprofit institutions rely on private donors to achieve their missions.
“Communities large and small have received immeasurable benefits from this generosity — as one cannot walk into a museum, library, hospital, or university without being reminded that the buildings and the programs they house would fail to exist without philanthropy,” Weiss said in a statement. “With the benefit that comes from accepting these gifts, comes the obligation for institutions to devise thoughtful gift acceptance policies that ensure that they can realize their respective missions and values. At The Met, we fully acknowledge that our institution has an obligation to be accountable for its decisions.”
The Met’s approach is a good model, said Sally Yerkovich, author of “A Practical Guide to Museum Ethics.” She said the issue is bigger than one donor.
“It will be interesting to see if this has fallout for other donors, or if this is a separate, singular thing,” she said.
The negative attention generated by the protests and lawsuits should give museum officials pause, Yerkovich added.
“This is causing museums to really think about where their values are and how those values are expressed,” she said. “Are the kinds of money they accept an expression of their values? The safest way for museums to approach this is to think about those issues in the abstract. It is really hard when you’re under fire to think objectively about this.”