Adding fuel to the growing outrage over the Sackler family’s role in the opioid crisis, a senator wants the Smithsonian to remove the Sackler name from its Asian art museum, saying the family behind the drug company that produces OxyContin “has no place in taxpayer-funded public institutions.”
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) sent a letter Wednesday to the new Smithsonian secretary, Lonnie Bunch, requesting that the institution remove the Sackler name from the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of Art. The move comes in the wake of thousands of lawsuits that claim members of the Sackler family were personally involved in deceptive marketing practices at the family-owned pharmaceutical company, Purdue Pharma.
“The Sackler family hooked thousands of Americans on OxyContin through aggressive and misleading marketing tactics and profited from one of the deadliest public health crises in our country,” Merkley wrote. “I ask that you remove the name from the gallery.”
Merkley said in an interview that the call to remove the Sackler name was prompted by constituents who have described “the carnage these drugs have done to our state,” as well as public disclosure of documents from the lawsuits. Earlier this month, Merkley introduced a bill to dramatically increase funds for opioid treatment by imposing fees on drug companies.
“A number of emails have been made public that shed new light on how aggressive and destructive the family was in creating this crisis,” he said, noting that Richard Sackler, former president of Purdue, pushed a public relations strategy that blamed the victims for their addictions. “This is horrific stuff. We’re talking about the decisions that contributed to the deaths of tens of thousands of people.”
Merkley’s letter comes amid a growing backlash against the Sackler family, which has supported high-profile cultural and educational museums — individually and jointly — for more than 50 years. The Sackler name appears at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim, the Louvre, the Tate, and the Victoria and Albert museums, and universities including Harvard, Princeton, Cornell, Tufts and Yale.
For more than a year, activists led by photographer Nan Goldin have protested at some of these institutions to spotlight the source of the family’s wealth and the consequences of the crisis. There were more than 70,200 drug overdose deaths in 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 68 percent involved an opioid.
Activists have pressured the institutions to remove the Sackler name and to refuse future donations. Several have responded, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which last month followed the lead of the Tate galleries and National Portrait Gallery in London and the Guggenheim Museum in New York, in stating they would no longer accept Sackler family gifts.
Merkley’s request came on the third day of Bunch’s tenure as the 14th Smithsonian secretary. The timing was a coincidence, the senator said, although he said he hoped the institution’s new leadership would take different action.
Bunch had no comment Wednesday, but a Smithsonian spokeswoman said he would respond to Merkley by letter soon. In the past, the institution said it did not plan to change the name or return any gifts from the family.
Merkley said the Smithsonian’s federal support — it receives about two-thirds of its $1.5 billion annual budget from Congress — means he has a responsibility over its operations.
“But I would stress that any museum that has the Sackler name on it should convene its board tomorrow to discuss whether to remove it,” he added.
The public outrage is aimed at the entire family, which descendants of Arthur M. Sackler say is unfair. Brothers Arthur, Raymond and Mortimer Sackler bought the small pharmaceutical company Purdue Frederick in 1952, and Raymond and Mortimer bought out Arthur’s one-third share after his death in 1987. Purdue Pharma was formed in 1991. OxyContin appeared on the market in 1995.
In 1982, Arthur Sackler donated 1,000 objects with an estimated value of $50 million to the Smithsonian, along with $4 million for a museum to house them. The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery opened in 1987, four months after its namesake’s death. The underground gallery is adjacent to the Freer Gallery of Art.
None of the current lawsuits names Arthur Sackler or his descendants, said a spokeswoman for his widow, Jillian Sackler.