Sipa US / Alamy Stock Photo
The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City recently announced a change in its sponsorship in the wake of several members of the Sackler family being embroiled in the opioid crisis that is rife in much of the United States. The Sacklers are long-standing financial supporters of the Met – and other cultural institutions – but the art gallery has decided that it now wants to disassociate itself with the billionaire dynasty that is founded on wealth derived from pharmaceutical products. In December, the Met – which houses some of the most precious and bet-known works of art and antiquities in the world – announced that it had reached an agreement with two of the representatives of the Sackler family that exhibition spaces at the gallery would no longer carry their name.
It is understood that the Met’s board reached the deal with descendants of the two Sackler brothers who were originally behind the development of a drug known as OxyContin, one that has been central in the public healthcare row in the US concerning opioid usage. Until recently, seven gallery spaces at the Met were named after members of the Sackler family. However, it is the family’s other association – one with their company’s narcotic painkiller – that has led to the gallery and the family parting ways. Nevertheless, it still remains unclear as to whether the family will continue to support the art gallery financially in any way while its name is being removed from its galleries.
The Sackler family has sponsored some of the Met’s most prestigious exhibits. This includes an exhibition space that features the Temple of Dendur, for example, an ancient Egyptian temple which has been described by some at the institution as one of the most iconic works of art in its collection. This exhibition space has historically been part of the wider Sackler Wing, an entire wing of the art museum which, henceforth, will no longer carry their name.
The Egyptian Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Art / Maurizio De Mattei
Big Pharma, Big Philanthropy
The Sackler family owns a pharmaceutical firm called Purdue Pharma. It is this business that has numerous civil lawsuits and even criminal investigations into its activities going back several years. Purdue Pharma is also the producer of OxyContin, the painkiller which appears to have caused so many people in the US to get caught up in the growing opioid crisis there. In September, a New York judge dealing with bankruptcy ruled that a settlement could be reached with Purdue Pharma. This deal included something in the region of $4.5bn from the company’s owners, members of the Sackler family. This caused widespread criticism in some quarters given that numerous claims against the company are still being made in court.
On top of this, legal representatives for Purdue Pharma issued a guilty plea last year to three counts of criminality and ended up paying some $8bn in fines and damages. This has led some campaigners to think that the likelihood of some members of the Sackler family going to prison has now diminished greatly. However, public anger at the billionaire family has not abated, perhaps the main reason why the Met chose to disassociate itself from them publicly.
Nevertheless, the museum insisted that its decision about the use of the Sackler name hadn’t been one-sided. In a statement, the Met said that family representatives the late Mortimer and Raymond Sackler had ‘mutually agreed’ to take this course of action. It said that this would allow the gallery to focus on what it called its ‘core mission’. The Sackler family also issued a statement that read that despite being strong supporters of the Met, it believed this to be in the best interests of the gallery.
In 2018, an American art photographer, Nan Goldin, initiated some direct action protest at the Met which drew widespread attention to the Sackler’s involvement there. She went on to stage similar protests at other institutions including the Guggenheim in New York, as well as the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Louvre Museum in Paris. The Met has now confirmed it will be taking no further gifts from the Sackler family.
About the author – Manuel Charr
Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.