The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Citing opioid ties, the Met says it will no longer accept gifts from the Sackler family

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which decided to no longer accept Sackler donations after a months-long review of its gift policies. (Seth Wenig/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

The Metropolitan Museum of Art announced Wednesday that it will no longer accept donations from the Sackler family of philanthropists who built their fortune from the development and sale of opioids.

The Met’s decision comes amid mounting criticism of the Sacklers’ role in the opioid crisis. Hundreds of cities, counties and states have filed lawsuits claiming 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.

Three other art institutions — the Tate galleries and National Portrait Gallery in London and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York — previously announced that they would not accept gifts from the family.

For decades, the Sacklers have supported high-profile cultural and educational institutions around the world — from the Met to Harvard University to the Louvre. But artists and social media activists have criticized those relationships and called on the institutions to return the Sackler gifts and remove the name from their walls. In response to protests, the Sackler Trust, one of the family’s philanthropic arms, announced in March that it was suspending donations.

The Sacklers have donated millions to museums, but the opioid crisis is threatening its legacy

The Met’s decision affects the branches of the family related to Purdue Pharma. In 1952, Sackler brothers Arthur, Mortimer and Raymond bought a small pharmaceutical company, and in 1987, Mortimer and Raymond bought out Arthur’s share after his death. Purdue Pharma was established in 1991.

The Smithsonian Institution has drawn a similar distinction regarding the branches of the family and the source of their wealth. The Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery opened in 1987, months after its benefactor died and years before OxyContin came on the market. Arthur Sackler donated 1,000 objects and $4 million to the museum, and the Smithsonian is contractually bound to keep the family name on the Asian art museum, according to a spokeswoman, who added that future donations are not in the works.

“We have no plans to approach any member of the Sackler family for a donation,” spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas said Wednesday, repeating the response from March, when the Guggenheim made its announcement.

‘Shame on Sackler’: Anti-opioid activists call out late Smithsonian donor at his namesake museum

Arthur’s widow and Smithsonian donor, Jillian Sackler, has repeatedly said her husband had no role in the opioid crisis. “It is a gross injustice to blame [Arthur],” she said in a statement earlier this year. “Not a penny of his philanthropy derived from the sale of OxyContin, and it is a disservice to the institutions he founded to suggest otherwise.”

The Met said that its decision came after a months-long review of its gift policies, which was prompted by the public outcry over the Sackler gifts. The decision was first reported in the New York Times.

“Private philanthropy literally built The Metropolitan Museum of Art,” Met president and chief executive Daniel Weiss said in a statement. “What distinguishes our Museum from its global peers, such as the Prado, the Hermitage, and the Louvre, is the fact that we did not begin with a royal or imperial collection. Every object and much of the building itself came from individuals driven by a love for art and the spirit of philanthropy.

“For this reason, it is our responsibility to ensure that the public is aware of the diligence that we take to generate philanthropic support. Our donors deserve this, and the public should expect it.”

The Sackler donations to the Met — including the gift that funded the wing housing the museum’s Temple of Dendur — date back half a century. The museum does not plan to remove the Sackler name.