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

Protesters outside the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of Art, one of the Smithsonian’s Asian art museums. (Peggy McGlone/The Washington Post)

Chanting “Shame on Sackler” and “Sackler kills with its pills,” about 50 anti-opioid activists gathered at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of Art on Thursday afternoon to bring attention to what they say is the philanthropic family’s role in the nation’s opioid crisis.

Led by photographer Nan Goldin and her organization Prescription Addiction Intervention Now, or PAIN, the group traveled from New York to Washington for the protest. They planned to meet legislators on Capitol Hill later in the day.

“We are here to call out all of the Sacklers,” Goldin said. “The Sackler brothers built an empire of pain.”

The Sackler name is well-known in cultural circles because of the family’s support of a broad range of institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

The Sackler Gallery is one of several major cultural institutions that bear the family name, including wings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim Museum in New York, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Recently, media reports have spotlighted the source of the family’s wealth and called on descendants to fund programs that address the crisis that critics say they created.

Although now deceased,  brothers Arthur, Mortimer and Raymond Sackler became wealthy through their pharmaceutical companies. After Arthur’s death in 1987, Mortimer and Raymond’s company, Purdue Pharma, introduced OxyContin, one of the drugs at the center of the opioid epidemic.

Deaths from drug overdoses topped 42,000 in 2016, according to the National Centers for Disease Control. The death rate is five times higher than it was in 1999.

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The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, the Smithsonian’s Asian art museum, opened in 1987, following the 1982 gift from its namesake of 1,000 objects and $4 million.

The activists, including Goldin, acknowledged that the oldest Sackler died before OxyContin was invented, but they said his marketing genius paved the way for the drug’s widespread use. The group wants the family — one of the wealthiest in the nation, according to Forbes — to support efforts to combat addiction.

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“They have whitewashed and sanitized their reputation. We want them to be held accountable, financially and culturally,” said L.A. Kauffman, a writer and organizer with PAIN.

Purdue Pharma issued a statement saying they are troubled by the opioid abuse crisis and “dedicated to being part of the solution.”

“Purdue’s led industry efforts to combat prescription drug abuse which includes collaborating with law enforcement, funding state prescription drug monitoring programs and directing health care professionals to the CDC’s Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain,” said company spokesman Robert Josephson. “In addition, we’ve recently announced educational initiatives aimed at teenagers warning of the dangers of opioids and continue to fund grants to law enforcement to help with accessing naloxone.”

A team of Smithsonian security staff and gallery guards kept watch over the protest but did not interrupt it. PAIN held a similar protest at the Metropolitan Museum of Art last month.