Sitting in the Bartos Theatre at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in November of 2018, I was waiting for curator Paola Antonelli to kick off one of her “R&D Salons,” which bring together artists, scientists, activists, experts, and various other creative minds to think through thorny questions of our times. Salon twenty-nine was titled “Dependency” and featured a fascinating lineup from artist and disability activist Park McArthur to counter-anthropologist Gina Athena Ulysse, who made her presentation, in part, through song. It was to be capped off by artist Nan Goldin, known for her intimate photographic work, particularly a tender and brutally straightforward series of portraits from the early 1980s titled The Ballad of Sexual Dependency.
Goldin took the stage and her voice began to quiver. She was quickly overcome by emotion—she was making a presentation not about her artwork, but about the activist group PAIN (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now), which she had founded following her recovery from addiction to the powerful opiate painkiller OxyContin.
PAIN’s stated mission is quite specific: to publicize the troubling links between the pharmaceutical’s production and the philanthropic Sackler family, whose name is deeply imbricated with art museums the world over. As Goldin explained at a later protest in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in March 2019, “We’re here to call out the Sackler family, who has become synonymous with the opioid crisis,” gesturing to fellow activists who held aloft signs and banner that read “We’re here to call out the museums who allow the Sackler name to line their halls, tarnish their wings, to honor the family who made billions off the bodies of hundreds of thousands.”
The Sackler name has been inextricably tied to art and philanthropy for decades; indeed, their largesse has been likened to that of the Medicis for their provision of major funding to museums, from the Met and the Guggenheim in New York to the UK’s Tate Modern and National Portrait Gallery, and the Louvre’s Sackler Wing in Paris. And yet the money that enables this generosity, or at least a big chunk of it, comes from what we now know is a very dark place.
One arm of the family, until early 2019, was intrinsically involved with the running of Purdue Pharma, the maker and mass marketer of OxyContin. Though originally presented as nonaddictive and safe, this extended-release version of oxycodone, a drug 50 percent stronger than morphine, has proven to be incredibly addictive and highly potent. After years of misinformation and marketing to doctors as an addiction-resistant panacea for all manner of persistent pain, the drug, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Oxycontin contributed to over 200,000 deaths caused by opioid overdose in the United States since 1999.
The namesake of the Washington, DC, gallery to which he donated $4 million in construction funds and over 1,000 precious objects of Asian Art, Arthur M. Sackler, along with his brothers, Mortimer and Raymond, was trained as a doctor. Arthur was also an entrepreneur and successful advertising executive who saw the potential for direct marketing to doctors as a way to exponentially increase sales. In 1952, the three brothers purchased a small company called Purdue Frederick, which over time evolved into Purdue Pharma. By the 1960s, the firm had grown into one of the leading purveyors of tranquilizers, and Arthur Sackler made a fortune marketing them. He simultaneously ran an advertising company and a journal for doctors, which proved to be an effective way to boost sales. Sackler was also known to have bribed a Food and Drug Administration chief to promote certain drugs.4 When he died in 1987, Raymond and Mortimer bought out Arthur’s descendants’ stakes in Purdue. While all of the Sacklers certainly became wealthy before 1987, Purdue Pharma would soon be yielding profits that made their prior fortune pale in comparison.
Purdue’s most successful drug during the 1980s was MS Contin, a time-release morphine pill that allowed patients to experience relief from pain over many hours. However, by the time of Arthur’s death, the patent was running out and generics would soon take its place. As often happens in the pharmaceutical industry, Purdue sought to improve the formula so as to continue to reap high margins on sales under a new patent. The result was OxyContin, which Mortimer and Raymond Sackler rolled out in 1996 “with one of the biggest pharmaceutical marketing campaigns in history, deploying persuasive techniques pioneered by Arthur.” Their formulations provided small dosages as well as mega-pills that vastly exceeded the potency of other opiate pills on the market. As Barry Meier, New York Times reporter and author of the 2003 Pain Killer, put it, “In terms of narcotic fire-power, OxyContin was a nuclear weapon.”
Between 1996 and 2017, the use of OxyContin (and its generic, instant-release version, oxycodone) skyrocketed, making billions in revenue for the Sacklers still affiliated with Purdue Pharma and cultivating a generation of addicts and their untimely overdose deaths. How did this medication get so popular so fast? The fact of the matter is that the Sacklers were following a model they had been for more than a half century: aggressive marketing, directly and relentlessly targeting doctors to prescribe OxyContin not only for acute pain that might follow surgery but also for long-term chronic pain. Further, Purdue not only worked doggedly to destigmatize significant medical hesitancy to prescribe opiates, but it also capitalized on a misconception among doctors that “oxycodone was less potent than morphine.”
By 2005 several states had brought suits against the makers and marketers of oxycodone over their roles in myriad overdose deaths, including Purdue Pharma and members of the Sackler family. While the legal battles had only just begun, the fact remained that the billions in revenue from these drug sales has made this family one of the wealthiest on the planet. Of course, the Sacklers are also a major donor to the arts. At the time, the Sackler name remained on the walls of some of the world’s most august cultural institutions, and these institutions were caught in a double bind: Should they continue to be grateful for financial largesse that fundamentally supports their work while acknowledging the deep ethical problems in using such funds to support cultural endeavors?
Given Goldin’s status as a highly collectible artist whose work is desired by and represented in nearly all major museum photography collections, she saw an opportunity to use her leverage to make change. In 2018, she and a group of supporters kicked off the PAIN protests by dumping hundreds of “prescription bottles” of OxyContin into the reflecting pool at the Met’s Temple of Dendur, an iconic ancient Egyptian structure located in the wing that bears the Sackler name. Then at the Guggenheim in 2019, on whose board Mortimer D.A. Sackler sat until 2018, and whose education center was named for the family in 2001, Goldin staged a theatrical and impactful “die-in.” Hundreds of “prescription slips” for OxyContin were dropped from the upper ramparts of the museum’s famous spiral, which floated down on a crowd lying on the floor of the rotunda chanting “Shame on Sackler.” Meanwhile, large banners unfurled over the railings of the ramp declared “Take Down Their Name” and “200 Dead Each Day.”
While these were surely powerful symbolic gestures, it wasn’t clear if anything would, in fact, shift. Even if public pressure were exerted on these eminent institutions, their relationships with donors often went back decades, and museums rely heavily on private philanthropy to make possible not only maintenance of current collections and facilities, but also day-to-day operations and temporary exhibitions, not to mention future growth.
Then came March 2019. The National Portrait Gallery in London declared that it would not accept a gift of $1.3 million from the Sackler Trust. Why did they make this decision? Because Nan Goldin had told the Observer she was in discussions with the gallery about a retrospective, which she would refuse if they continued to accept Sackler funds. In short succession, Tate, the Met, and the Guggenheim followed suit, each stating in their own way that they would not take future gifts from the family. Each noted that while the Sackler’s past generosity was laudable, current lawsuits and revelations about the family’s involvement in this health crisis made it problematic to accept new gifts. Many of the Sackler foundations simultaneously announced they would suspend any future gifts.When two major New York City museums divest of funds from a particular donor, it is an acknowledgement that money is not neutral.
Then in July 2019, the Louvre announced it would remove the Sackler name from the galleries named in the family’s honor. The announcement stated that there was a twenty-year concession on the naming and, since that initial period had lapsed two years prior, that the Sackler name was due for retirement. While the Louvre did not identify ongoing international protests by Goldin and PAIN as the reason for its decision, it is worth noting that the Louvre announcement followed another round of PAIN protests on July 1 in Paris. Following these events, under ongoing pressure from PAIN, schools like Tufts University took the Sackler name from their walls, and NYU’s Langone Medical Center decided to take no further funding from the family.
In the midst of this distancing, however, fears within museums were rising that similar scrutiny might be applied to other donors, prompting Daniel Weiss, president of the Met, to state, “We are not a partisan organization, we are not a political organization, so we don’t have a litmus test for whom we take gifts from based on policies or politics. If there are people who want to support us, for the most part we are delighted.” The concern was that if wealthy people felt they might have to undergo some kind of vetting, it would debilitate cultural organizations from raising funds. The museum felt it had to continue to declare its neutrality, even as it was being forced to radically shift its relationship with a major, longtime donor.
This wasn’t the first time the Met had rejected taking funds from a now-unsavory source. In the early fall of 2018, I received an email from the Met’s Department of Islamic Art inviting me to a small discussion at the museum in late October, which was supported at least in part by funds from the Saudi government. About two weeks later, on October 2, Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi dissenter and columnist for the Washington Post, was brutally murdered and dismembered in Istanbul. Over the ensuing weeks, it became increasingly clear that the Saudi royal family was likely to be involved in the crime.
On the morning of October 18, I received the following deceptively anodyne email:
We want to thank you for your upcoming participation in “Collecting and Exhibiting the Middle East.” It is our pleasure to host this small invitation-only scholarly seminar on how encyclopedic museums collect and exhibit modern art from the Middle East. This is an important conversation and core to our work as a global institution at The Met, as it is for each of the participants. While this conversation and a subsequent public colloquium were to be supported by external funds, in light of recent developments we have decided that the Museum will itself fund this event.
Again, we look forward to seeing you next week,
That same morning, it was announced in the New York Times that both the Brooklyn Museum and the Met would be returning funds from the Saudi regime for upcoming programs. Divestment from these funds made an important statement about the non-neutrality of the sources of these funds. Indeed, the museums could not possibly claim Saudi support could be neutral following Kashoggi’s murder.
When two major New York City museums divest of funds from a particular donor, it is an acknowledgement that money is not neutral, and that there are limits to the kinds of support a cultural space will accept if they contradict the stated values of the museum. And while there are certainly very real, material differences between the Saudi Royal Family and Sackler situations, in a cultural moment that has brought scrutiny on many aspects of society, the museum and cultural world seems more connected than ever to international, national, and local events. But how exactly did we get here? Why has this moment of seeming accountability arrived? And what does it mean for the ways in which museums currently operate? How does the myth of neutrality manifest within our cultural spaces, and why is it so problematic? To get deeper, we need to understand the nuances of neutrality more expansively, as well as how cultural spaces have evolved over time.
From Culture Strike: Art and Museums in an Age of Protest by Laura Raicovich. Used with the permission of the publisher, Verso Books. Copyright © 2021 by Laura Raicovich.