Last weekend in New York a crowd of artists and their friends stormed the stately front steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art to express a serious grievance. At the Guggenheim Museum the same protesters, on the same mission, rained a shower of paper onto the ground floor level from Frank Lloyd Wright's renowned twisting balconies.
Even when the cause of these demonstrations was explained, it seemed bizarre. These artists were complaining not about questions of art but about the wealthy patrons who support museums. It was probably the first ever demand from artists that museums should investigate the source of the money that supports them. They were raising the issue of the Sackler family, its Purdue Pharma company and their sales of OxyContin.
The chief instigator of the protest, Nan Goldin, is a much-praised photographer, famous for a 1986 book and photo-show, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. At the Met demonstration Goldin made it clear that this issue is rooted in her own experience. In fact, she's been a victim of the painkiller OxyContin, to the point of dependence. She was prescribed it after surgery for "peace of mind and social calm." She said, "I took it for those reasons and I ended up locked in my room for three years." With some allies she started an activist group, PAIN (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now).
A leaflet distributed at the Metropolitan says: "We love the Met (but) unfortunately this museum is tainted with the blood money of the Sackler family." The Sacklers stand accused of profiting from sales of OxyContin. PAIN suggests that museums, universities and other educational institutions remove the Sackler name from signs and refuse future funding from the family. That would involve a considerable amount of signage removal. Typically, the Met's Gallery of Chinese Stone Sculpture, which opened in 1965, is called the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Goldin believes that their protest at the Met is likely to run a long time. It began a year ago with a comparatively discreet complaint. "We came here a year ago and knocked on the door and the Met has done nothing," she says. "They said they're looking at their gifting policies, but what does that mean? They haven't done anything and we're going to come back until something happens."
The extent of the Sackler family's investments in drugs was noted by the Financial Times last September: "The billionaire Sackler family, which has been blamed for fuelling the U.S. opioid addiction epidemic, owns a second drugmaker that churns out millions of addictive painkiller pills every year. The Sacklers are best known as the owners of Purdue Pharma, the privately held drugmaker that makes the now infamous opioid painkiller OxyContin, which has been described as 'heroin in a pill.'"
Nan Goldin and PAIN have started what could be a transformation of the way museums are financed. If they have their way, if donors like the Sacklers are eventually shunned, the idea won't stop with drugs. We can imagine that would-be donors to cultural institutions will be investigated for connections with corporations producing military equipment, pipelines and an infinite number of conceivably harmful products. Agencies will be set up to advise fundraisers on just which possible patrons are clean enough to be solicited. Cultural support, not usually a top priority for public grants, will become endlessly more complicated.
Correction: In my column above, discussing the demonstrations against the Metropolitan Museum and the Guggenheim Museum in New York over the issues raised by OxyContin, I erred in my references to the Sackler family and their donations to museums.
I assumed, wrongly, that Arthur M. Sackler financially benefited from the sale of OxyContin and made donations to museums from that profit. But in fact he died in 1987, nearly a decade before OxyContin existed. Shortly after his death, his brothers Mortimer and Raymond purchased his one-third option in Purdue Frederick. Under their ownership, Purdue Frederick and Purdue Pharma brought OxyContin to market in 1996 -- nine years after Arthur's death and the termination of his interest in Purdue. None of the charitable donations made by him or by his widow, Jillian Sackler, in his memory was funded from the sale of OxyContin. This family is not a corporate monolith. The respective wealth and philanthropy of the brothers and their heirs derive from different sources.