The Sackler Family: Big Museum Donors, Big Pharma, and OxyContin

The Sackler Family has recently been in the news because of a lawsuit filed by the state of Massachusetts against Purdue Pharma, a pharmaceutical company owned by the Sacklers. The lawsuit is attempting to hold the company – and more specifically Sackler family members and Purdue board members and executives – accountable for contributing to the United States’ opioid crisis. Just last week, the City of New York added eight members of the Sackler family to a $500 million lawsuit filed last year to offset costs related to the opioid crisis. Purdue Pharma is the producer of the opioid OxyContin and released the drug 1995. According to an Esquire article from 2017, “Purdue Pharma was the first to achieve a dominant share of the market for long-acting opioids, accounting for more than half of prescriptions by 2001.” By 2001 sales of OxyContin had surpassed $1 billion. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) between 1999 and 2017 over 200,000 Americans have died because of overdose on prescription opioids and, overdose deaths involving prescription opioids were five times higher in 2017 than in 1999. Although there have been previous allegations that Purdue Pharma 1) hid the fact that OxyContin is highly addictive and 2) that the company saw and capitalized on this addictive quality to sell more of the drug, there is mounting evidence to show these allegations are true. Richard Sackler, former Chairman and President of Purdue Pharma, has been identified as a key player in pushing OxyContin sales and then, when opiod addiction became a crisis, putting the blame of addiction on patients. A New York Times article reports that in 2001, when he was president, Sackler wrote an email saying, “We have to hammer on abusers in every way possible…They are the culprits and the problem. They are reckless criminals.” Marabou is talking about the Sacklers today because the Sackler name is on museums across the US and abroad, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and the Louvre in Paris. Over the past few years, there has been growing concern around the ethics of museums accepting Sackler money.

Artists including photographer Nan Goldin and sculptor Domenic Esposito, have been actively trying to remove the Sackler name from museums. Goldin, who has lived through addiction to OxyContin and documented it, co-created the organization P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now). Their mission statement is as follows,

“We are committed to making the Sacklers and Purdue Pharma responsible for helping to find the solution to ending America’s opioid epidemic. We insist that they fund treatment and education, and correct the misinformation regarding opioids. We intend to put pressure on museums, art spaces and educational institutions to refuse future donations from the Sacklers. We intend to hold the Saklers [sic] accountable, and put social and political pressure on them to respond meaningfully to this epidemic.”

P.A.I.N. has organized actions in various museums and continues to bring attention to the Sackler contribution to the opioid crisis.

Certain members of the Sackler family are trying to clarify and differentiate one set of Sackler money from the other. Jillian Sackler, the widow of Arthur Sackler, released the following statement (as printed in a January 21, 2019 article in The Art Newspaper) after a P.A.I.N. action in the Arthur Sackler Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in March of 2018. She said her husband,

“died [in 1987] nearly a decade before Purdue Pharma—owned by the families of Mortimer and Raymond Sackler (his brothers)—developed and marketed OxyContin. None of the charitable donations made by Arthur prior to his death, nor that I made on his behalf after his death, were funded by the production, distribution or sale of OxyContin or other revenue from Purdue Pharma. Period.”

The Art Newspaper went on to clarify that Mortimer and Raymond Sackler, now both deceased, were involved in OxyContin’s release in 1995. Richard Sackler, at the center of the Purdue Pharma investigation, is the son of Raymond. Jillian’s statement asserts that not all Sacklers have profited from the opioid epidemic. A 2018 investigative article in The Atlantic says the descendants of Arthur are not completely in the clear due to some repayments to the Arthur Sackler estate by the Purdue companies in 1997.

The reality is that the Sackler family, whether all of them or some of them, benefit from the sale of OxyContin and are complicit in the opioid crisis. This has pushed museums to reevaluate their gift acceptance policy. Daniel Weiss, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s president and chief executive, is quoted in the same article as Jillian Sackler as saying,

“The Sackler family has been connected with The Met for more than a half century. The family is a large extended group and their support of The Met began decades before the opioid crisis. The Met is currently engaging in a further review of our detailed gift acceptance policies, and we will have more to report in due course.”

Weiss feels there is a need to differentiate among the Sacklers. Domenic Esposito, who also organized the Opioid Epidemic Accountability Conference held last week, offers a different opinion. According to WBUR in Boston, for Esposito,

“the Sackler name — even if some of the family members are not involved with Purdue — has taken on a different meaning in the American consciousness. He said Sackler has gone from a legacy of arts and culture philanthropy to death and destruction. ‘It’s a public image that they want to portray, this philanthropy and adding to society, and I think that is mistaken. It’s the equivalent of having the parent of El Chapo give you money. What, does that make it any better?’”

Where do you stand when it comes to the presence of the Sackler name in museums? Take every reference to the Sacklers down? Or should the Arthur Sackler name remain and just the names of Mortimer, Raymond, and their descendants be removed?

Marabou hopes that the press coverage of the Sackler family’s involvement in big pharma, the opioid crisis, and museum funding rings bells across the museum world inspiring institutions to revisit their list donors and think about where the money comes from. There will need to be ongoing external pressure from the public for museums to actually reevaluate their funding sources and take a stand against accepting “dirty” money. The next time you visit a museum, take a look at the donor wall. Pay attention to whose names are on the entryways to galleries. Search the donor acknowledgement page on a museum’s website. Bring attention to a donor or donation that has come from unethical and questionable sources.


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