Hugh Eakin is a 2018-2019 National Endowment for the Humanities public scholar.
A society doctor whose vast wealth was fueled by slave labor in Jamaica persuades the British government to purchase his extraordinary natural history collection. A one-time diplomat and soldier of fortune persuades a group of prominent New Yorkers to buy his dubious trove of Cypriot antiquities — and make him the director of their new public art gallery. A ruthless oil tycoon leaves his billion-dollar fortune to create the richest art institution in the world.
Though they lived in different centuries, Hans Sloane, Luigi Palma di Cesnola and J. Paul Getty had a few things in common. They were founding figures behind three of the world’s most prominent museums — the British Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the J. Paul Getty Trust. And neither their money nor the art they collected was tainted by unsavory associations.
Coming after months of protests, this week’s announcement by the Guggenheim Museum and two British institutions that they are severing ties with the Sackler family and its $13 billion OxyContin-fueled fortune has been presented as an unequivocal stand against dirty money. Indeed, as multiple lawsuits pile up against the Sacklers and Purdue Pharma, the case may seem unusually clear-cut.
But the problem hardly ends with the opioid crisis.
In recent years, museums have faced growing scrutiny over their donors’ ties to everything from climate-change denial to sexual harassment issues. After the killing of Jamal Khashoggi last fall, museums came under fire for taking money from the Saudi government. And even as the Sackler situation unfolds, New York’s Whitney Museum is confronting a new round of roiling protests against Warren Kanders, the tear-gas billionaire who is its vice chair. (In a statement, Kanders has vigorously denied allegations of complicity with U.S. decisions to use tear gas against migrants at the southern border.)
It is tempting to treat these as isolated cases that just happen to be breaking at the same time. They are not. For many of the world’s most distinguished museums — from the Mauritshuis in the Netherlands to the Frick Collection in New York — have tainted money in their DNA. And in the United States especially, there’s a long history of courting the super-rich to keep the donations flowing.
Not that museums are particularly corrupt places. To the contrary, attendance alone — 67 million people visited U.S. museums in 2017 — shows how vital they are to our cultural life.
But museums have always been exceptionally good places to convert roughly obtained private wealth into social prestige. And in the United States, where there is minuscule public funding and museums with ever-growing ambitions, that process has become an essential part of the cultural landscape.
Currently, government support has dwindled to about 3 percent of the estimated $5 billion spent on the arts every year.
Nor does the general public contribute much. Despite ever-rising ticket prices, most museums lose money on visitors. According to a 2018 survey by the Association of Art Museum Directors, the largest museums spend an average of $63 per visitor, while receiving only $13 in revenue.
At the same time, museums have been virtually priced out of the art market. They depend on gifts from top collectors, which account for three-quarters of today’s acquisitions.
Faced with these pressures — and the relentless drive to expand — museums have spent decades coming up with new ways to woo billionaires, including tax breaks, naming rights and the special cachet that a $10-million board seat commands.
When New York’s Museum of Modern Art needed to raise more money in the wake of the 2008 recession, it simply added seats to its coveted board.
Now, having given so much power to the ultra-wealthy, we are dismayed that their money sometimes comes from dubious sources. Until now, protesters have focused on a few high-profile cases. Clearly, no museum should take money from blatant lawbreakers or those who profit from causing others pain.
But what happens when we decide to take on, say, big real estate? Many museum boards include real estate executives who wield outsize political influence, and they may not have the interests of ordinary citizens in mind.
One option is divestment. Last summer, the Netherlands’ Van Gogh Museum and Mauritshuis dropped long-running sponsorship deals with Shell following protests about the company’s environmental record. But both museums receive substantial support from a national culture lottery fund.
Other countries are not so lucky. In Britain, officials told the Guardian this week that government cuts in the public Art Fund will require more, not less, reliance on wealthy corporations and private donors.
Nowhere is this more true than in the United States, where companies such as Pfizer (whose products include Naloxone, the antidote to an opioid overdose) and ExxonMobil are among the most generous charitable givers in the corporate sector.
In extreme cases, such as the Sacklers, lines will have to be drawn. But we cannot erase history. For better or worse, our greatest museums are built on the backs of billionaires. Museums should be forthright about this reality, and much more transparency is needed. But they should not be afraid of it.
Unless we are prepared to embrace large-scale public arts funding — or dramatically scale back our cultural ambitions — there are few alternatives.