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Saturday 9 February 2019

Art’s bitter pill

What? The Sackler family have been great supporters of art and learning. Their fortune comes partly from opioids whose misuse is devastating lives in America. Why? The debate about whether Sackler cash is tainted is just the beginning. Can the art world turn its back on dirty money?

By Catherine Nixey

Every revolution has its light-the-touchpaper moment. And even if the revolution turns out to be very big, these incidents can be very small: the moment when the first hand throws the first stone, raises the first banner, pulls the first trigger. The moment when smouldering discontent bursts into open outrage. The moment after which everything changes.

For art, that moment happened last year, just after 4pm on March 10 in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in front of the Temple of Dendur. The temple, which stands in the Sackler Wing, is a magnificent building. Sacred to the goddess Isis (and deified still further by appearing in When Harry Met Sally) it is big – eight metres tall from tip to toe – and made to made to look taller still by the pool of water that the Met has installed in front of it.

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Photographer Nan Goldin leads the Opioid Protest.

The hand that began this revolution belonged to the artist and former opioid addict Nan Goldin, and it held nothing more or less harmful than a pill bottle. Goldin took the pill bottle and threw it into the water. She kept throwing them. Her supporters threw more. Bottle after bottle, their labels reading “OxyContin” and “prescribed to you by the Sacklers”, were tossed into the water.

The stillness of the water – and subsequently of the entire art world – was disturbed. The ripples are being felt still. Because that Met protest was the beginning of something far bigger. It was the moment – think of it as art’s #MeToo moment – when an open secret became an object of open disgust. The moment when everything was turned upside down and the revolution began.

To understand what was going on in the Sackler Wing of the Met Museum on that March day you have first to understand what the Sacklers mean to art, and to America. And what they mean to art is, in short, cash. And plenty of it. The Sackler Wing where those bottles were thrown is named after the brothers Arthur, Mortimer and Raymond Sackler, who donated $3.5m for its construction in the seventies. The Sacklers have bequeathed the world far more than just that. The Louvre also has a “Sackler Wing”. The V&A has its new “Sackler Courtyard”. Oxford University has a “Sackler Library”, the National Gallery has the “Sackler Room”… One art historian described Arthur Sackler as “a modern Medici”.


As with the Medicis, such largesse has required large amounts of money. Very large. You don’t get Michelangelo as your decorator – or the wing of the Met Museum as a place to party, as Mortimer once did – without shelling out a great deal of hard cash. The Medicis famously got their money by banking. The Sacklers – far less famously – got theirs through making and marketing drugs. Because the Sacklers didn’t just bequeath the world art. They also bequeathed the world Purdue Pharma and, through that, some members of the family (it is large and extended) bequeathed the world the opioid OxyContin. According to one researcher the company bears “the lion’s share” of responsibility for the current opioid crisis in America. And this is what the Sacklers are now starting to mean for America: they are inextricably tied up with one of the country’s most pressing and terrible public health crises.

This isn’t confined to America. Sackler money runs through British museums like veins through marble. But where these institutions once  were happy to paint, emboss, and engrave the name “Sackler” onto their most important wings and galleries, now the family have become all but pariahs. It is rumoured – though Tate will not discuss this – that Tate invited Theresa Sackler, Mortimer’s wife, to a fund-raising event and then disinvited her, realising that Nan Goldin was going to be there.

It goes far deeper than being disinvited from parties. Talk to those who move in the same circles as the family and they will tell you that they are “mortified” by this and would do anything to take themselves away from this story. Though quite what they can do is unclear. As one art insider told us, no one would touch Sackler money now. Not least of all because they might draw the attention of  Goldin’s campaigning organisation, Prescription Addiction Intervention Now, or PAIN. PAIN’s mission statement declares that “We intend to put pressure on museums, art spaces and educational institutions to refuse future donations from the Sacklers.” Almost no amount of money would be worth the embarrassment caused by protests such as the one at the Met.

Profound though the Sacklers’ humiliation has been, it may not be over yet. The erasing of names from public monuments is a punishment reserved for the most hated figures of society; for disgraced Roman emperors in ancient times and African slave traders in modern ones. If these protests continue then, so some museums and galleries fear, the Sacklers may well soon join that ignominious list. For the moment, so many institutions are tainted that there is safety in numbers. But as one insider said, as soon as one institution falls, and paints or chisels or sandblasts away the name Sackler, then others are likely to have to follow. The humiliation will be the museums’ as much as the Sacklers’.

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The Sackler Courtyard, a 2017 addition to the Victoria and Albert museum.

However – and this is why this is the start of a revolution rather than merely a scandal – art’s problems go far deeper than just the Sacklers and OxyContin. That story is big, but it is not alone. And it’s not just in America. “The Sacklers are not in isolation,” says Adrian Ellis, cultural consultant and founder of AEA Consulting. Every month, more stories appear of museums who, having eagerly stretched out their palms to donors for money, are now retracting the hand of friendship from those same donors.

Late last year the Met Museum made headlines again. This time for accepting money from the Saudis. It had accepted $20,000 of Saudi money for a seminar but after the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, the museum said it would be funding that seminar itself.

In the same month the Brooklyn Museum, which had been going to use Saudi funding for an exhibition on Syria, decided after Khashoggi that, after all, it wouldn’t. Others ploughed on – but at a cost to their PR. In October, the Natural History Museum in London was accused of accepting “blood money” after it accepted £23,700 from the Saudi Embassy to allow them to celebrate “Saudi Arabia Day” in their famous Hintze Hall, with its whale skeleton called “Hope”, just over a week after the murder.

It’s not just the greybeards of the art world who are coming under scrutiny. In December it was the turn of Frieze, the icily cool art fair. Frieze is launching a new outpost in Los Angeles in February in partnership with their shareholder Endeavour, the media entertainment group. Then in December, again after Khashoggi, it was reported that Endeavour was “in the process of” returning a $400m investment from Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund.

Fossil fuel companies too are increasingly starting to be seen as unacceptable. In 2015, protesters staged a 25-hour “performance” in the Turbine Hall in Tate Modern in London, in which they wrote messages about climate change on the floor of the Turbine Hall to protest at BP’s sponsorship of the gallery. The following year, BP announced their sponsorship of Tate was ending – though denied this was to do with the protests.

A divide is appearing in London’s cultural institutions. While BP and Tate have split, the National Portrait Gallery not only still accepts BP’s money but names one of its major awards – the BP Portrait Award – after the company. Meanwhile on the website of the British Museum, beneath the headline “Your support: success stories – BP”, the museum (also owner of the “Raymond and Beverly Sackler Rooms”) explains how BP has been “generously supporting” the museum for 22 years. It too experiences regular protests as a result.

The discomfort is being felt everywhere. Last month, The Art Newspaper reported that the Met Museum in New York had issued a statement clarifying that their support from the Sackler family “began decades before the opioid crisis” – but that they were also “currently engaging in a further review of our detailed gift acceptance policies”.

It’s not just in art that the sheen is starting to come off philanthropy. The former McKinsey consultant turned New York Times columnist Anand Giridharadas has written a scorchingly scornful new book called Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World. Its argument is much as it says on the tin. Or, as Giridharadas put it in a recent interview, he wants to “convince the general public to stop outsourcing the changing of the world to plutocratic elites”.

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Jacqueline Sackler (second from right) at the American Museum of Natural History’s Annual Winter Dance

Which, for those who’ve been taking the shilling of these elites, is a problem. Because, at a time when governments are cutting back, these donors have a lot of shillings to give. In 2016 Forbes listed the Sacklers as the 19th richest family in America, estimating their wealth at $13bn.

Not all the members of the Sackler family profited from OxyContin. Arthur Sackler, for one, died long before it existed. A statement issued to us on behalf of his widow, Dame Jillian Sackler, and the philanthropic foundation that bears her name and his, calls it “a gross injustice to connect Arthur to the opioid crisis some 30 years after his death when he had nothing to do with it”. It also, she says, “denies the many important contributions he made working to improve world health”. His one-third option in the parent company, Purdue Frederick, was then bought by his brothers, so no donations made by him or his widow, before or after his death, were funded by the sale of OxyContin.

OxyContin was first introduced in 1996 as a less addictive sort of painkiller and was aggressively – and successfully – marketed. Arthur may have been dead but his marketing influence lived on.  Sales rose swiftly, from $48m that year to almost $1.1bn in 2000. Barry Meier, a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist, wrote about OxyContin in his prescient 2003 book Pain Killer: A ‘Wonder’ Drug’s Trail of Addiction and Death. The drug was, he says, “marketed as less prone to abuse and addiction than traditional painkillers”. That, at any rate, was the marketing theory.

And if there was one thing the Sackler family knew about, it is marketing. Arthur, the oldest Sackler brother, was a marketing maverick. Or, as Meier less flatteringly puts it, “A huckster… He was creator of the modern-day drug advertising industry.” Valium (slogan: “Reduce psychic tension”) was Arthur’s great triumph – and the first drug to reach $1bn in sales. “Every aggressive advertising technique used to promote drugs, used to make people feel that there is a pill for every ill, was created by Arthur Sackler,” Meier writes. “It’s that simple.”

Statistics from the The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in America estimate that misuse of prescription opioids alone costs the US $78.5bn a year. Every day in America more than 130 people die from overdosing on opioids. It is estimated that about 80 per cent of people who use heroin first misused prescription opioids. In 2007 Purdue pleaded guilty in the US to charges that it misled regulators, doctors and patients about the addictive properties of OxyContinMembers of the family now face mass litigation over the drug.

So much is now known about OxyContin that it would be easy to assume that it always was known. To assume that museums venally and knowingly accepted tainted money. But talk to those who actually sit on the boards of museums – boards that are usually peopled by well-meaning donors rather than investigative journalists or expert moralists – and you hear a different view. The museums and galleries may simply, they suggest, not have known.

Christian Levett is a trader-turned-art-collector who founded his own museum (the MACM in France) and also sits on the board of visitors of the Ashmolean. He suggests that global institutions have been taking money from the Sacklers for 50 years in complete innocence”.

If that idea seems improbable, Levett expands a little. Because “unless you worked in the drug industry or knew someone that had taken this drug or others drugs that may be dangerous, then how would you know?” Another board member says that there was simply a sense that here was a family who had made some clever things and done well out of it. Where was the harm in that? Clearly, says Levett, one now has to think twice about accepting donations from the drug industry, “but that’s easy to say with the benefit of hindsight”.

Sir Nicholas Serota, current chair of Arts Council England, was the director of Tate for almost 30 years during which time it received a £1 million from the Sackler Trust. “I think at that point less was known than is the case now,” Serota says, “about the position of the Sackler companies in relation to certain drugs.”

He doesn’t regret taking the money. “No. I think you have to recognise that for many, many years they were generous supporters of many different kind of charity… I think what has emerged about the drug and its consequences has come long after some of those donations were made.”

Colin Tweedy agrees. Tweedy is the managing director of The Building Centre and was on the board of the Serpentine Gallery when it took money from The Dr Mortimer and Theresa Sackler Foundation. “None of us, when accepting Sackler money, knew anything about the opioids scandal in America…. I knew members of the Sackler family. We just saw them as fantastic donors. They were nice people… We were just absolutely grateful to receive their money and it’s done wonderful things.”

Innocent or not, museums are chary about discussing the issue. Contact galleries to ask about the donations they have received and the most likely response is silence, or a blandly careful reply. The V&A, who received major grants from the Dr Mortimer and Theresa Sackler Foundation and the Sackler Trust are more effusive than most. They reply with a statement to say that “This support is more important than ever and we are grateful for the generosity of donors”, adding that they “regularly assess our funding activities to ensure best practice”. Meanwhile the National Gallery, less effusively, replied that “The National Gallery adheres to an ethical fundraising policy which can be viewed on our website here –” then added the link. Hardly a declaration of blood brotherhood.

Is the scrutiny fair? The Sackler family is large and extended. Not all were involved in OxyContin and yet all are paying the price for it. A spokesperson for the Sackler Trust and the Dr Mortimer and Theresa Sackler Foundation stated that they “support a range of educational, medical, scientific, cultural and community organisations. It is a privilege to be able to support such vital work and we continue to do so.” Many inside the art world think and speak extremely highly of Theresa Sackler. She hasn’t merely given money but time, and care. She sits on the V&A board. People respect her.

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Dame Theresa Sackler (right) at the launch of the Serpentine Sackler Gallery designed by Zaha Hadid (left)

But to focus merely on the Sacklers misses the point of why this is important. Ellis points to several other donors who are starting draw opprobrium. He points to Warren Kanders, for one. Kanders is the majority owner and CEO of Safariland LLC. When US border agents fired tear gas at migrants on the Mexico border last year, journalists afterwards posted photos of the canisters. Some bore the logo “Safariland”. Kanders is also now the vice chair of the board of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

Then there are the Koch brothers – described by Forbes as America’s second richest family and by Barack Obama as a “problem”. David Koch has given millions to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Lincoln Center. Or how about Rebekah Mercer? The Mercer family has given money to climate denial groups. But she – to the anger of protesters – is on the board of the American Museum of Natural History. Last month more than 200 scientists signed a letter urging the museum to“end ties to anti-science propagandists”. The list goes on. This is far bigger than OxyContin.

And it matters. Because both in America and to some extent in Britain, the mechanism for funding museums is, says Ellis, “rich people who are generously giving donations through a whole range of motives from pure philanthropy through to a form of reputational money laundering”. Give enough money to a museum and you work a little everyday magic. Think of it less philanthropy than alchemy: gold is transformed into immortality, with a dash of added moral superiority.

It works, too. Giridharadas has said that if that Sacklers who had benefited from the OxyContin money had not invested in art but had instead bought yachts, they would have been attracted attention far more quickly.

Reputational laundering has been going on for years. Leland Stanford, Andrew Carnegie or John D Rockefeller were derided in their time as “robber barons”. Now, they are mainly remembered for their cultural heft; for their universities, halls and foundations. Alfred Nobel made his money improving explosives – a “merchant of death” as one paper called him – until he decided to burnish his reputation by founding the Nobel Awards. He hoped to be remembered for the awards not the nitroglycerin. PR dynamite, it worked. After all money, as the emperor Vespasian snapped when criticised for imposing a tax on urinals, has no smell.

But while it’s true that it has no smell, in the modern era it does have a Google search history. And people in increasing numbers are starting to say that such donations stink. Museums are caught in a dilemma. Hang dodgy donors out to dry and the public may applaud you – but other donors will run a mile. And as a museum, where do your loyalties lie? A plutocrat can cough up millions in a single donation, while the public, for all their censoriousness, can rarely be persuaded to put a fiver in a donation box.

There are those who defend them and say, in short: stop bleating. The FT, whose editor Lionel Barber is also Chair of Tate, ran a leader in January stating that “To condemn all sponsorship as reputational ‘art washing’ is silly. Worse, it is counter-productive” and that: “Harassing those that devote cash to such causes is one way to convince the rest it is not worth putting down roots at all.”

Serota, by contrast says of the increased scrutiny: “Of course it’s a good thing. These are institutions that have to maintain public trust… If they are being supported by people who are felt not to be working for the public good, that diminishes, obviously, the level of trust and it diminishes the standing of the institution.”

Tweedy – who was also the former chief executive of Arts & Business, a UK national charity that promotes commercial partnerships with creative organisations – remembers a time when the general attitude to giving was one of just such robust pragmatism.

“Lord Goodman, Harold Wilson’s lawyer and the most famous chairman of English National Opera and chairman of the Arts Council, said: ‘I don’t care where the money has come from, it can have come from the Mafia, but if it goes to the arts it becomes good money’. So he took a very amoral view.” Nonetheless, it is a view that history, in some ways, might support. “Look at the Medici. The Medici were absolutely the most ruthless and arguably brutal princes of Florence – but they also had Michelangelo and Leonardo.”

Certainly it’s easy to see why museums are shuffling their feet on this. They “are not incentivised to move terribly quickly on these sorts of issues. The stakes are fairly high,” says Adrian Ellis. “It’s a bit like MeToo… The thing about MeToo is that there is a lot of justice in there and presumably there is periodic injustice too. It’s a slightly rough and ready form of meting out justice.”

Rough and public justice is profoundly offputting to those who want smoothly polished reputations. Museums could start to screen more carefully – and ditch – donors who don’t make the moral mark. But that too, thinks Ellis, will cause problems. “If you pick any one individual and… hand them the revolver on the silver tray, then the others are going to think: ‘Is this going to affect me?’.” And that, says Ellis, “will have a chilling effect on philanthropy”.

“I think that if you fish from a smaller pond it’s bound to be more difficult,” says Serota. “So if you decide that you are going to look really carefully at sources there will be fewer sources available to you… But I still think that there’s a lot of money around that people will want to take – and that it will be right to take.”

And practically, there is the problem of where you stop. It’s (relatively) easy to score out troublesome companies from the list of your donors. Doing a moral audit on the wealth of the private individuals or oligarchs – do they invest in Exxon? Altria? worse? – who might step in to fill the funding breach is somewhat harder.

So, as Arthur Sackler could have told you, marketing and publicity matter. Except now, the Sacklers’ publicity – not to mention that of several other donors – is very much not going according to plan. The reputational laundering isn’t working – if anything, backfiring. Do they care? Meier thinks they do.

“I think they care very much,” he says. “I think if they could wave a magic wand right now and make all the bad publicity about them go away they would.”

Doubtless the museums would too. Now if only there were a pill for that.