Opioids II: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (screenshot via Youtube)

This weekend’s episode John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight highlighted activist group Sackler Pain’s direct action at the Guggenheim Museum in a new episode on the opioid crisis.

“The Sacklers love putting their names on things,” Oliver said of the founders of Purde Pharma, producer of OxyContin, after listing the numerous art institutions that carry the family’s name on their building; “although until very recently they have been miraculously good at keeping their name off the opioid crisis.”

The episode turns the spotlight onto Richard S. Sackler, president of Purdue pharma between 1999-2003, whose role in the opioid crises is spotlit in a number of lawsuits against the company.

Court documents emerging from the lawsuits against Purdue Pharma are strewn with harrowing statements by Sackler: When told about about the death of 59 people in a single state at the early stages of the opioid crises, his reaction was: “This is not too bad. It could have been far worse.” In another instance, Sackler wrote in a confidential email: “We have to hammer on the abusers in every way possible. They are the culprits and the problem. They are reckless criminals.”

With no available footage of Purdue’s former president who, as Oliver claims, is deliberately invisible, the show recruited actors Michael Keaton, Brian Cranston, Michael K. Williams, and Richard Kind to portray the billionaire speaking in court hearing. Cranston conjured up his Breaking Bad character as drug dealer Walter White to recite Sackler’s boasting of the success of OxyContin; and Kind recreated a deposition in which Sackler said the words “I don’t know” over a 100 times. The parodies can be seen on a new website named Sacklergallery.com.

In February, photographer Nan Goldin, supported by the drug advocacy group the artist founded called Sackler Pain, showered the Guggenheim’s rotunda with fake OxyContin prescriptions. The action was a parallel to a statement by Richard Sackler at a launch event for OxyContin, where 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.” Oliver ended his episode with a similar response, filling his studio up with a blizzard of court documents from the lawsuits against Purdue.

In March, the Guggenheim Museum announced that it “does not plan to accept any gifts” from the Sackler family in the future. The museum joined the first ranks of a growing list of art institutions that made a similar decision, including Tate, and the National Portrait Gallery in the UK. Shortly following these announcements, the Sackler Trust announced that it’s suspending its philanthropic donations in the United Kingdom.

Hakim Bishara is a Senior Editor at Hyperallergic. He is also a co-director at Soloway Gallery, an artist-run space in Brooklyn. Bishara is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital...

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