Exeter, Devon UK • Jun 22, 2024 • VOL XII

Exeter, Devon UK • [date-today] • VOL XII
Home CommentColumnists Empire of Pain: How the Sackler family ‘art-washed’ their opioid-built fortune

Empire of Pain: How the Sackler family ‘art-washed’ their opioid-built fortune

Writer Lina Stenman, art history student, questions: should museums, galleries and universities be held responsible for how their donors have made their money?
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V&A Museum artefact via Wikicommons

For decades, the Sackler family successfully art-washed their fortune through philanthropic donations to the biggest art museums and institutions in the world. However, following one of the deadliest opioid epidemics in US history largely due to Purdue Pharma’s production and distribution of the highly addictive OxyContin drug, museums worldwide are beginning to remove the Sackler name from gallery wings, institutions, and buildings.

Opioids are a class of highly addictive pharmaceuticals that include prescription drugs such as OxyContin, morphine, and fentanyl, as well as illicit substances such as heroin. In 2017, it was estimated that 1.7 million people in the US suffered from substance abuse disorders relating to the over-prescription of opioid pain relievers such as OxyContin. Purdue Pharma falsely labelled and advertised the drug as “non-addictive” stating that the addiction rate was “less than one per cent”. This resulted in a subsequent over-prescription by doctors who had been told to use OxyContin for ailments and injuries that would have otherwise been treatable with non-addictive pain relievers.

Many arts institutions were reluctant to cut ties with the Sackler Trust due to their generous donations to a notoriously underfunded sector.

In the years following this crisis, many institutions such as the British Museum in 2022, the Louvre in 2019, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2021, have removed the Sackler name from several wings of their galleries. However, this still begs the question: why did it take years for these museums to react to the Sackler controversy?

Many arts institutions were reluctant to cut ties with the Sackler Trust due to their generous donations to a notoriously underfunded sector. The influence of the artist, activist, and former OxyContin addict, Nan Goldin, prompted museums such as the National Gallery to reject donations by threatening to pull out of a planned retrospective if they accepted any incoming payments from the Sackler Trust. Her staged ‘die-ins’ at the Guggenheim in 2019 prompted their quiet removal of the Sackler name from their education centre in 2022. Activists such as Goldin have paved the way towards exposing the Sackler’s overreliance on philanthropy to ‘art-wash’ their opioid built-fortune.

The rise of the advocacy group P.A.I.N (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) founded by Goldin in 2017, ensured that museum institutions continuing to uphold the Sackler name were held accountable and staged interventions on site until change is made. They aim to share the stories of those who fell victim to over-prescription of the drug as well as Purdue Pharma’s lack of due diligence surrounding OxyContin’s highly addictive nature.

Despite this, there are some institutions that continue to display the Sackler name. The Harvard Art Museums, one of which is named the Arthur M. Sackler Museum, have refused to remove any dedications to the Sackler family. Similarly, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London strongly objected to removing the name until 2022. In an interview with the Guardian, the V&A’s director Tristram Hunt, said that “we are not going to be taking names down or denying the past”. However, it is clear that as public pressure mounted coupled with the upcoming release of Nan Goldin’s documentary, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, the museum was prompted to rethink its controversial Sackler policy.

Today, much of the Sackler name has been erased from the walls of prestigious museums and universities around the world, particularly in the UK. Nevertheless, a family who built their expansive fortune from the suffering of the American people will remain largely unaffected. In 2019, Purdue Pharma filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection to address its debts from numerous lawsuits. In August 2023, the Supreme Court halted any proceedings on a deal that would give Purdue owners immunity in exchange for a one-time $6bn payment to settle the thousands of lawsuits by states, hospitals, and people who were affected by the crisis.

Although this case remains open and incomplete, the Sackler name will continue to serve as a poignant and devastating reminder of the lives lost due to OxyContin. Museums and institutions who continue to display the Sackler name in spite of their actions, ought to consider the individuals whose lives are still affected by the impacts of this devastating epidemic. It is important to remember that opioid addiction is still on the rise in the US despite minimal news coverage. In 2021 over 75% of drug overdose deaths in the US involved an opioid. And thus, we question: how many more lives will this crisis take before museums and universities wash the sullied Sackler name from their walls?

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