Nan Goldin and her activist group of drug policy advocates, PAIN (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) took the Guggenheim Museum by surprise yesterday, February 9, in a covert direct action against the Sackler Family, owners of the opioid manufacturer Purdue Pharma. The group later marched down the Museum Mile on Fifth Avenue for a second, publicly-announced protest at the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The iconic spiral atrium of the Guggenheim Museum was humming with visitors at 6:30 pm, on a busy free admission Saturday, when a rain of leaflets fell from the top stories all the way down to the rotunda’s floor, where Goldin and her supporters started their chants. The pamphlets feature a fake medical prescription citing from an email exchange between Robert Kaiko, the developer of OxyContin, and Richard Sackler, in which Sackler replies to Kaiko’s warnings against the abuse potential of the drug if left uncontrolled with the question: “How substantially would it improve our sales?”
This exchange was revealed in January in the court documents of a lawsuit filed against Purdue in the state of Massachusetts. The blizzard of white slips of paper that filled the Guggenheim’s atrium’s air was the group’s response to another statement by Sackler, in which he said, “The launch of OxyContin tablets will be followed by a blizzard of prescriptions that will bury the competition. The prescription blizzard will be so deep, dense, and white.”
Other protestors who were located at the balconies of all four of the museum’s stories draped down red signs that read: “400,000 dead”; “Shame on Sackler”; “200 dead each day”; and “Take down their name”. Downstairs, protesters staged a “die-in,” surrounded by the fallen leaflets and mock OxyContin prescription bottles. The protesters chanted: “More are dying every day; we need action right away”.
“We came to the museums a year ago. We came to the Met and did an action. We asked that they take down their [The Sackler family’s] name. We asked they refuse to future funding — There has been no response,” Goldin told Hyperallergic. “There was a weak response that they are ‘looking into their gift policy,’ and that’s the best we got.” This latest direct action, said Goldin, is in repose to the revelation in the court documents in Massachusetts. “It’s so dark, it’s evil … I can’t breathe, and I’m furious.”
Following the new revelations, the Metropolitan Museum announced in January that it will review its gift acceptance policies. “They have not done anything,” said Goldin, who staged her first direct action in the museum at the Met’s Sackler Wing in March 2018. “We will come back every year until something happens. Until they disavow themselves.” The Sacklers, she added, should be charged with murder. “They should be in jail, next to El Chapo.”
Robert Suarez, who lost his mother in 2001 to complications due to opioid abuse, and suffered himself from OxyContin addiction for six years, told Hyperallergic, “The Sackler family made billions of dollars out of the loss of lives. For an institution like the Guggenheim to take any of this blood money … it’s criminal. We need to expose the Sackler family for who they are: They are the highest form of drug dealers. They knew the addictive properties of OxyContin long before it came out, and they exploited that. They pushed OxyContin onto the public and paid doctors to push it too.”
In an emotional address in front of the Metropolitan Museum, Alexis Pleus, who lost her son, Jeff, to OxyContin addiction when he was a high school student said, “I don’t expect the Sacklers to care about my son Jeff; I don’t expect the legislators to care about my son Jeff; but 40,000 lives? Somebody should care about that.” Pleus, who founded the organization Truth Pharm to fight against substance use disorders, demanded that patent for an opioid-antagonist (anti-opioid) drug which Purdue has acquired be taken from its hands and offered to abusers for free.
The Massachusetts state court documents reveal that in the years 2014-15, Purdue considered selling the anti-opioid Buprenorphine (better known as Suboxone) to what it regarded as “an attractive market.” The suit quotes from an internal memo which described a “Large unmet need for vulnerable, underserved, and stigmatized patient populations suffering from substance abuse, dependence, and addiction.” Richard Sackler, the former chairman and president of Purdue Pharma, had a different opinion on abusers before the company realized the profit potential from selling Buprenorphine. In an email he wrote in 2011, the court revealed, Sackler attacked abusers as “reckless criminals” and accused them of being “the culprits and the problem” in the opioid crises.
Goldin founded PAIN Sackler in 2018 while recovering from an OxyContin addiction to condemn the Sackler family and to pressure museums and art institutions to reject their donations. “They’re trying to say that it’s [OxyContin] for ‘peace of mind’ and ‘social calm’. I took OxyContin for those reasons and I ended up locked in my room for three years,” she said at the steps of the Metropolitan Museum, “I came out and realized that it’s time to speak out.”