The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C. (courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution)

The Smithsonian Institution will not remove Arthur M. Sackler’s name from its Asian art gallery in Washington, DC, its new secretary, Lonnie G. Bunch, declared. Bunch made the announcement in his response to a letter from Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley asking to remove the Sackler name for the family’s role in the opioid crises.

“The Sackler family hooked thousands of Americans on OxyContin through aggressive and misleading marketing tactics and profited from one of the deadliest public health crises in our country,” Senator Merkley wrote to Bunch in a letter sent on June 19. “The Sackler name has no place in taxpayer-funded public institutions, such as the Freer-Sackler Gallery.” In the letter, the senator also mentioned recently uncovered court documents that “show clearly that Sackler family members personally and aggressively drove Purdue’s strategy to get Americans hooked on OxyContin.”

On Friday, June 28, Bunch responded to Merkley’s demand with a letter explaining that the Smithsonian was legally bound to maintain the name of Arthur M. Sackler in perpetuity. “The legal agreement signed between the Smithsonian and Arthur M. Sackler was in keeping with the Smithsonian’s recognition practices at the time and obligated the Smithsonian to designate the facility as the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in perpetuity,” Bunch wrote in his letter to Merkley. “For this reason the Smithsonian cannot remove the Sackler name from the Gallery without breaking this commitment.”

In 1982, Arthur M. Sackler donated $50 million worth of Asian art and artifacts to the Smithsonian Institution, in addition to a $4 million donation for the construction of a new Asian art gallery. Arthur M. Sackler passed away in 1987, eight years before Oxycontin existed. His brothers, Mortimer and Raymond, purchased his one-third option in Purdue Frederick from his estate a few months after his death.

Bunch clarified that in 2011, the institution revised its donor recognition policy to limit the naming rights for all new buildings created to 20-year terms.

The “Sackler issue has been under examination at the institution for some time,” Bunch wrote to Merkley. “Please know that we appreciate that, in order to maintain and preserve the public trust, we must meet the highest ethical standards in all of our activities,” he added.

The Smithsonian is not the only institution to decline requests to remove the Sackler name from its buildings. While a number of institutions, including the Guggenheim Museum, Metropolitan Museum, and Tate, have announced they will not accept donations from Sackler family members still associated with Purdue Pharma, none have removed the family’s name from its buildings.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, which said in January 2019 that it will review its gift acceptance policy, currently states on its website that “a gallery or other space within the Museum may be named for a period not to exceed 50 years.” That is in accordance with New York City’s policy on donor recognition at City-owned buildings, the Met says.

In a protest at the Louvre Museum in Paris on Monday, July 1, the anti-opioid group PAIN Sackler, led by artist Nan Goldin, noted in a statement that the Paris museum’s internal bylaws governing donations “allow room designations following a donation to be revoked at any time.” The group unfurled a large red banner in front of the Louvre’s museum pyramid calling on the museum to “take down the Sackler name.”

This past April, artist Hito Steyerl, another vocal critic of museums who accept Sackler donations, created an augmented reality app that removed the family’s name from the Serpentine Sackler Gallery in London. “In the app, this building is completely unnamed — which, if you want my point of view, is what I think should happen really,” Steyerl said in an interview with the Guardian. “I think, honestly, most of the art institutions that bear that name would be so happy to get rid of it. It would be so easy to do, if they were to talk to one another and introduce some informal regulation that allows them to un-name their institutions,” she continued.

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...