By Philip Kennicott
Art and architecture critic
When the National Portrait Gallery in London announced Tuesday that it was forgoing a grant from the Sackler family, observers could be forgiven for a certain degree of skepticism about the decision’s impact on the art world. The Sacklers, owners of the pharmaceutical behemoth Purdue Pharma, which makes OxyContin, had promised $1.3 million to support a public-engagement project. The money, no doubt, was welcome, but the amount involved was a relative pittance.
Now another British institution and a major U.S. museum, the Guggenheim, have said no to Sackler money, which has become synonymous with a deadly and addictive drug that boosted the family fortune by billions of dollars and caused immeasurable suffering. The Tate art galleries, which include the Tate Modern and the Tate Britain in London as well as outposts in Liverpool and Cornwall, announced Thursday that it will also not accept money from the family.
The Sacklers are mired in legal action, investigations and looming congressional inquiries about their role in marketing a drug blamed for a significant early role in an epidemic of overdose deaths that has claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans since 1997.
Is this a trend? These moves may affect immediate plans but won’t put much of a dent in the museums’ budgets. The impact on the Sackler family’s reputation, however, will force American arts institutions to pay attention.
The Sackler family, which includes branches with differing levels of culpability and involvement with the issue, has a long history of donating to cultural organizations. Arthur M. Sackler, who gave millions of dollars’ worth of art and $4 million for the opening of the Smithsonian’s Sackler Gallery in 1987, died long before the OxyContin scandal began. Members of the family involved with OxyContin vigorously contest the claims that Perdue Pharma was unscrupulous in the promotion of a drug, though company executives pleaded guilty to violations involving OxyContin in 2007 and the company paid more than $600 million in fines.
A million here or there is one thing. Having a whole building named for a family with blood on its hands is another, and seeking yet more money for new projects will become even more problematic. And every institution that bears the Sackler family name, including New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (which has a Sackler wing) and the University Art Museum at Princeton (which has a Sackler gallery) is now faced with the distasteful proposition of forever advertising the wealth of a family that is deeply implicated in suffering, death and social anomie.
Will any major U.S. institution that has benefited from Sackler largesse remove the family’s name?
The National Portrait Gallery in London. (Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images)
The usual arguments against this are stretched to the breaking point. Like arguments about Koch family money, which has benefited cultural institutions but is, to many, inextricably linked to global warming and the impending collapse of the Anthropocene, the issues at stake seem, at first, to be consistency and pragmatism. The pragmatic argument is this: Cultural organizations need the money, and if they don’t take it, that money will go somewhere else. And this leads quickly to the argument from consistency. Almost all of our major cultural organizations were built up with money derived from family fortunes that are tainted — by the exploitation of workers, slavery and the lasting impacts of slavery, the depredations of colonialism and the destruction of the environment. So why should contemporary arts and cultural groups be required to set themselves a higher, or more puritanical, standard when it comes to corrupt money? And if consistency matters, should we now be parsing the morality of every dollar that built every opera house and museum a century ago?
Both arguments are cynical. Arts organizations that engage in moral money laundering cannot make a straight-faced claim to a higher moral purpose when they seek other kinds of funding, including donations and membership dollars from the general public and support from government and foundations. But the consistency argument — that the whole system is historically wrapped up in hypocrisy about money — needs particular reconsideration in the age of rapid information flows, which create sudden, digital moral crises and epiphanies.
[The Sacklers have donated millions to museums. But their connection to the opioid crisis is threatening that legacy.]
Moral (or social) hazard is a funny thing. For as long as cultural institutions are in the money-laundering business, companies such as Perdue Pharma will have an incentive to take greater risks. If the taint of public health disaster can be washed away, then other companies may choose to put profits over public safety. But this kind of hazard isn’t a finely calibrated tool. It involves a lot of chance and inconsistency in how it works. That has only increased in the age of viral Twitter campaigns and rapid conflagrations of public anger fueled by new social media tools.
Why is it that the Sackler family is in the crosshairs and not any of the other myriad wealthy people whose money was made through products that are killing us? Because it is. And that seeming randomness is built into the way we now police our billionaires. It seems haphazard, and sometimes unfair, and inefficient. Are there worse malefactors scrubbing their toxic reputations with a new hospital wing or kids literacy program? Surely. Maybe they will find their money unwelcome at some point in the future, and maybe not. The thing that matters is that the risk is there.
[Now would be a good time for museums to think about our gun plague]
The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of Art in Washington. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)
Much of the Sackler family money was made off a drug that deadens the mind and reduces the human capacity for thought and feeling. There is a nice alignment between that fact and what may now, finally, be the beginnings of a new distaste about using Sackler money to promote art and cultural endeavors, which must always increase our capacities for engagement with the world. It is immensely satisfying that the artist Nan Goldin, whose work has explored the misery of drug culture, is playing a leading role in the emerging resistance to Sackler family money. (Goldin, who was considering a retrospective of her work at the National Portrait Gallery, said to the Observer: “I have told them I would not do it if they take the Sackler money.”)
More artists should take a lead role in these conversations, to the point of usurping the usual prerogatives of boards and executive committees and ethical advisory groups to make decisions about corrupt money.
[‘Shame on Sackler’: Anti-opioid activists call out late Smithsonian donor at his namesake museum]
Ultimately, it is unlikely that any arts organization will manage to find a consistent policy or somehow finesse the challenge of saying all that money we accepted from gilded-age plutocrats a century ago is now clean. But we may think twice about taking money from people who are killing our planet and our people today. What matters is that sometimes lightning strikes, and there is hell to pay, and suddenly a name is blackened forever. That kind of justice may be terrifying and swift and inconsistent, but it sends a blunt message: When the world finally learns that what you have done is loathsome, it may not be possible to undo the damage through the miraculous scrubbing power of cultural detergent.