When the Smithsonian opened the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington in 1987, its namesake was hailed as a philanthropist and connoisseur who had amassed one of the world’s greatest collections of Asian art.
Now the Smithsonian is one of several blue-chip cultural institutions dealing with the blowback from the Sackler family’s other legacy — the American opioid crisis.
The most dramatic of these recent demonstrations occurred last weekend, when viral videos showed hundreds of activists chanting “Shame on Sackler” inside the Guggenheim Museum as they rained fake prescriptions through the cavernous atrium, where empty pill bottles rolled on the floor in protest of the family at the center of the ongoing public health epidemic.
The Sackler name is displayed in museums worldwide in recognition of gifts made by Arthur Sackler; his brothers, Mortimer and Raymond; and, after their deaths, their heirs. For more than five decades, individually and jointly, Sackler family members have donated to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim, the American Museum of Natural History and the Dia Art Foundation. There’s a Sackler gallery at the Princeton University Art Museum and Sackler museums at Harvard University and Peking University in Beijing.
The family and its foundations also have donated to European cultural institutions, including the Louvre in Paris, and London’s Royal Academy, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, the Tate Modern and the Old Vic theater. They have supported science education and research, with schools, institutes and centers named for them at Tufts, Cornell, New York and Yale universities, among others.
But the Sackler name is becoming increasingly tied to the opioid crisis, thanks to the efforts of activists who have spotlighted the source of Mortimer and Raymond Sackler’s wealth: the pharmaceutical giant Purdue Pharma, which since 1996 has manufactured and marketed the highly addictive painkiller OxyContin. Lawsuits have been filed, and protesters have used social media and demonstrations to raise awareness of what they call tainted donations. Students and arts advocates have called on the museums to renounce the donors and remove their names from their buildings.
Three decades after Arthur Sackler’s death, his family’s legal problems and deteriorating public image are proving to be a grave threat to his cultural legacy.
Arthur Sackler, who died four months before the Sackler Gallery opening, had donated 1,000 works worth an estimated $50 million to the Smithsonian, along with $4 million for a museum to house them. His gift created a world-class center of Asian art and culture adjacent to the Freer Gallery of Art, which opened on the Mall in 1923 to showcase the collection of Detroit businessman Charles Lang Freer.
Sackler made his fortune as a physician and medical marketer who popularized Valium and other drugs through direct advertising to doctors. In the 1960s, he became publisher of the Medical Tribune, a weekly newsletter to doctors. He was posthumously inducted into the Medical Advertising Hall of Fame. The Sackler brothers bought the small pharmaceutical company Purdue Frederick in 1952, and Raymond and Mortimer bought out Arthur’s one-third share after his death. Purdue Pharma was formed in 1991.
In 2007 — 20 years after Arthur Sackler’s death — Purdue Pharma and three of its executives pleaded guilty to misleading doctors about OxyContin’s potential for abuse and paid more than $600 million in fines. But recent lawsuits for the first time name members of the family that profits from the company with participating in the deception. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about 400,000 Americans died of overdoses involving prescription or illicit opioids between 1999 and 2017.
Controversial donors are not a new phenomenon — think of the robber barons Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller and Henry Clay Frick — but they have become increasingly problematic in today’s polarized climate. Consumers boycott products advertised on television shows they don’t like, and alumni pressure universities to rename buildings paid for by disgraced donors. Concerns about income inequality have challenged the very notion of allowing billionaires to gild their reputations by making tax-deductible gifts that result in their names being etched in stone.
Public opinion is divided about whether the money should be returned or the names removed. But observers all agree — the problem is only getting worse.
“It is more difficult and more salient now because we are more aware of built-in inequities,” said Amir Pasic, dean of the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University. “Putting people’s names on a building in today’s atmosphere seems to be giving people of privilege something extra. We’re more allergic to elevating some people over others.”
Outrage over the source of the Sacklers’ wealth and what some view as their complicity in the epidemic have led to guerrilla protests by the anti-opioid group Prescription Addiction Intervention Now (PAIN). On Saturday at the Guggenheim, they launched a surprise protest — as they did last year at Harvard, the Met and the Smithsonian.
Photographer Nan Goldin, who started PAIN after she says she became addicted to OxyContin, has spent the past year calling on arts institutions to remove the Sackler name, publicly denounce the family and refuse future gifts. The group’s protest at the Guggenheim, home to the Sackler Center for Arts Education, funded by a gift from the Mortimer D. Sackler Family, was one of its largest.
“We’re raising awareness. It’s getting out there,” Goldin said.
A Purdue Pharma spokesman said the company continues to support initiatives in law enforcement, education and health care aimed at addressing the opioid crisis. The company says its opioid medications account for less than 2 percent of all opioid prescriptions.
“Purdue Pharma is deeply concerned about the toll the opioid addiction crisis is having on individuals and communities across the nation, and we are committed to working collaboratively with those affected by this public health crisis on meaningful solutions to help stem the tide of opioid-related overdose deaths,” the spokesman said in a statement.
The issue of toxic donors is even more complicated in the case of the Sackler family, which is worth an estimated $13 billion. Its three branches and multiple generations are often — and, according to some descendants, unfairly — lumped together as a single entity.
“It is a gross injustice to blame my late husband, Arthur Sackler, for the public health crisis surrounding opioids,” Jillian Sackler said in a statement Monday to The Washington Post. “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.
“This drug came onto the market nearly a decade after Arthur’s death in 1987. He never profited from it, nor is his estate named in any lawsuit. 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. Arthur would be horrified to see how this drug has been misused and would be working to find solutions.”
Smithsonian officials said that the gift agreement with Arthur Sackler, signed in 1982, included naming rights in perpetuity and that they had no plans to remove the name or return the donated money or art.
“We give careful consideration to the process of naming,” Smithsonian spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas said in a statement. “The museum was named in recognition of Sackler’s generous gift to the Smithsonian. The donation agreement requires the Smithsonian to designate the facility as the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in perpetuity.”
The museum’s director, Chase F. Robinson, declined to comment.
Since her husband’s death, Jillian Sackler has been a significant donor to the gallery, contributing more than $6 million, including a donation last year. Other gifts from the family include $1.4 million from the Arthur M. Sackler Foundation, run by Arthur’s daughter, Elizabeth, and $88,000 from Theresa Sackler, Mortimer’s widow, whose most recent gift was 2016, according to the Smithsonian.
While standing by the Sackler name, the Smithsonian no longer accepts naming gifts in perpetuity. In 2011, at the launch of a national fundraising campaign, it adopted a policy that limits naming of spaces to a “term of 20 years or until the next major renovation,” St. Thomas said.
Institutions have several options when faced with problematic gifts, said Pasic, the Indiana University dean.
“Should they consider a new name? Would it be appropriate to give the money back in some way? There are no easy answers,” Pasic said, adding that families with multiple branches and generations make the situation that much more complicated.
“What do you do? Decide these are the bad Sacklers, these are the okay Sacklers?”
A thoughtful discussion is required, he said, one that focuses on the changing perceptions of the donors and changing attitudes of constituents.
“It goes to the core of the identity of the institution. This is a different era. A different time.”