Protesters at Metropolitan Museum Chant “Shame on Sackler,” Targeting Donors Who Profited from Opioid Crisis [UPDATED]

On Saturday, members of the group PAIN Sackler and other organizations gathered at the Temple of Dendur to decry the Metropolitan Museum’s association with the Sackler family’s painkiller fortune.

Nan Goldin leads a chant during Saturday’s PAIN Sackler protest in the Metropolitan Museum’s Sackler Wing (images provided by Sandi Bachom)

On Saturday afternoon, demonstrators descended on the Metropolitan Museum’s Sackler Wing to protest the namesake family’s profiteering from the opioid crisis. According to reports in the Guardian and elsewhere, some 100 people participated in the protest, which was organized by members of the collective PAIN Sackler (whose acronym stands for Prescription Addiction Intervention Now), including artist Nan Goldin, an ex OxyContin addict.

The demonstrators gathered at the Temple of Dendur, the Ancient Egyptian structure housed in the Sackler Wing. In 1974, the Sackler family donated $3.5 million toward the new wing’s construction. Members of the Sackler family own Purdue Pharma, the company that manufactures the prescription painkiller OxyContin. According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, there were more than 20,000 overdose deaths in the US in 2015 related to prescription pain relievers. According to a 2016 report, 115 people die in the US every day from an opioid overdose. OxyContin went on the market in 1995.

“The opioid crisis has been gathering speed and severity for several years, and being a friend to Nan through her addiction, detox and recovery last year made it very personal for me,” Marina Berio, an artist and member of PAIN Sackler, told Hyperallergic. “But like many other people, even in the art world, I was not aware of the Sackler/Oxy connection until I read the article in the New Yorker. Nan had been reading books on the history and policy of the issue in the months leading up to that story coming out, and she jumped into action with founding the PAIN Sackler group soon afterwards. ”

Sackler-branded pill bottles in the Sackler Wing's reflecting pool at the Metropolitan Museum during Saturday's protest (photo by Tim Davis)
Sackler-branded pill bottles in the Sackler Wing’s reflecting pool at the Metropolitan Museum during Saturday’s protest (photo by Tim Davis)

On Saturday, demonstrators unfurled banners that read “SHAME ON SACKLER” and “FUND REHAB,” while others staged a die-in and many more tossed prescription pill bottles — labelled “prescribed to you by the Sackler family, major donors of the Met” — into the reflecting pool that surrounds the Temple of Dendur. The protesters chanted “Sacklers Lie! People Die!” and called on the family to fund rehab and education programs. The group also created a petition addressed to Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family, which has been signed by more than 32,000 people as of this writing.

“The Sacklers made billions pushing their pills,” Goldin said at the protest. “The Sacklers knew their pills would kill.” After about 20 minutes, the protesters left the museum peacefully. Reached by Hyperallergic, a spokesperson for the Metropolitan Museum declined to comment on the protest.

“Nan is a force of nature, using her experience and voice made this a profound action I was proud to share,” Sandi Bachom, a journalist and filmmaker who attended the protest and shot the video below, told Hyperallergic. “The Sackler family needs to fund rehabs and treatment and acknowledge their part in this epidemic.”

Though many cultural institutions throughout the world are emblazoned with the Sackler name, not all are directly tied to profits from sales of prescription painkillers. Of the three Sackler brothers who owned what was then Purdue Frederick, one, Arthur M. Sackler, died before OxyContin existed. His brothers Mortimer and Raymond bought his share in the company and have subsequently profited from sales of OxyContin beginning in the mid-1990s — according to Forbes, the Sacklers are the 19th richest family in the US, with a collective worth of $13 billion. Meanwhile, Arthur M. Sackler’s daughter, philanthropist and arts patron Elizabeth A. Sackler, has not made any money from sales of OxyContin and has in fact come out in support of protests against her uncles’ company. Thus, though many museums have Sackler wings and galleries, not all of the money that funded such facilities is tainted by the opioid crisis.

“We call on the Met to not accept any more money from this one particular family, which has profited from intentionally lying to doctors, patients and the public about its product, resulting in countless deaths,” Berio added. “The American life expectancy has fallen for the second year in a row because of the opioid crisis, and the number of deaths per day is still escalating. At this point, everyone knows someone who has OD’d. This is a public health emergency and we must do what we can.”

This is not the first time the Metropolitan Museum has come under fire for accepting funds from donors with worrisome baggage. In 2014, the museum was the focus of protests for christening the outdoor space flanking its main entrance the “David H. Koch Plaza.” It received $65 million from the conservative billionaire and funder of climate change denial organizations.

Update, 3/12/2018, 6:30pm: Representatives for Jillian Sackler, the widow of Arthur M. Sackler, sent Hyperallergic the following statement:

Much of what’s been written in recent months about my late husband, Dr. Arthur M. Sackler, is utterly false. Arthur died nearly a decade before Purdue Pharma – owned by the families of Mortimer and Raymond Sackler (his brothers) — developed and marketed OxyContin. At the time of his death in 1987, Arthur was lauded for his contributions to medical research, medical communications and museums. He was a renowned art collector and connoisseur, and because of this, we have the Arthur M. Sacker Gallery of Chinese Stone Sculpture at The Met, the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian, the Arthur M. Sackler Museum at Harvard, the Jillian and Arthur M. Sackler Wing of Galleries at the Royal Academy and the Arthur M. Sackler Museum of Art and Archaeology and the Jillian Sackler Sculpture Garden at Peking University. 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.

Further, as a physician and medical scientist, Arthur was moved by a curiosity and desire to improve lives with new therapies. He made a substantial part of his fortune over 50 years in medical research, medical advertising and trade publications. His philanthropy in medicine extended to the Arthur M. Sackler Center for Health Communications at Tufts University and the Arthur M. Sackler Sciences Center at Clark University.

All these gifts, made in the 1970s and 80s, were made independently of his brothers and their families. Thus, for anyone to assert that institutions received “tainted” gifts from Arthur is ludicrous.

Passing judgment on Arthur’s life’s work through the lens of the opioid crisis some 30 years after his death is a gross injustice. It denies the many important contributions he made working to improve world health and to build cultural bridges between peoples.

Hrag Vartanian contributed reporting.

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