A surprise protest organized by PAIN Sackler in the V&A’s Sackler Courtyard (all images by the author for Hyperallergic)

LONDON — On Saturday, November 16, activists gathered at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) to protest against the museum’s acceptance of funding from the Sackler family, who have been accused of fueling and profiting from the deadly opioid crisis in the United States and United Kingdom. The protest is the latest in a series of actions led by PAIN Sackler, a group founded by photographer Nan Goldin that draws attention to the links between arts institutions and the controversial billionaire dynasty.

The surprise protest took place in the museum’s porcelain-tiled Sackler Courtyard, which was unveiled in 2017 and funded with a £2 million (~$2.6 million) donation from the Sackler family. The Sacklers own Purdue Pharma, the maker of the opioid painkiller OxyContin. The company has faced almost 2,700 lawsuits over the role of OxyContin in the opioid crisis, which has killed an estimated 400,000 people around the world.

The drug policy advocates urge the museum to “Abandon the Sackler Name”

Approximately 30 protestors stormed the courtyard, shouting slogans and holding red banners emblazoned with the words: “Abandon the Sackler Name” and “Shame on Sackler.” Mock prescription bottles and fake one-dollar notes splattered with red paint — referred to as “blood money” — were thrown around the courtyard. This was followed by a five-minute “die-in” in honor of the five people who die every day in the UK from opioid overdoses.

Goldin addressed the crowd, saying: “We’re here to tell the institutions to no longer take Sackler money and to begin to take their name down, because this is their legacy.” The protest followed a similar format to others organized by PAIN at institutions including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Guggenheim in New York. However, this was its first protest in the UK which, according to the activist group, has the third fastest-growing rate of opioid use in the world.

The group threw a flurry of “blood money” in the air

 In response to the protest, a V&A spokesperson said: “As a national museum and a space for civic debate, the V&A fully supports the public’s right to a peaceful protest. We are grateful for the generosity of our donors, which contributes towards our world-class public programme, supports the expert care needed for the collection and improves our facilities so they can be enjoyed by future generations.”

Nan Goldin during the five-minute “die-in”

In much of Nan Goldin’s recent work, currently on display in Sirens at London’s Marian Goodman Gallery — her first solo exhibition since 2002 — she documents the daily realities of drug addiction. For the last couple of years, Goldin has been at the frontline of discussions surrounding the Sacklers’ role in the opioid crisis and last week was ranked second on ArtReview’s 2019 Power100 List of the most influential people in the art world.

The core Sackler family members have an estimated collective worth of $14 billion, partly derived from the $35 billion which Purdue Pharma has made in sales revenue from OxyContin. In 2007, executives of the company pled guilty to the charge that they marketed OxyContin “with intent to defraud or mislead” regulators. Purdue Pharma and eight members of the family are currently being sued by thousands of American cities, counties, and states for a host of other charges. Earlier this year the company filed for bankruptcy, bringing a halt to the lawsuits. (Outside of the bankruptcy hearing in New York, PAIN showered the steps of the courthouse with “blood money.”)

This was PAIN Sackler’s first action in the UK

In March of this year, Theresa Sackler, a trustee of the V&A, announced that the Sackler Trust and the Dr. Mortimer and Theresa Sackler Foundation would be suspending all charitable giving in the UK. Tristram Hunt, director of the V&A, responded by saying that the London museum was proud to have received support from the family over the years, saying: “We are not going to be taking names down or denying the past.”

The “die-in” lasted five minutes, a reference to the five people who die daily in the UK from opioid overdose.

For several decades, the Sacklers have been prolific donors to the arts. PAIN Sackler accuses cultural institutions of being complicit in “whitewashing their reputation” by accepting their “toxic philanthropy.” A number of museums, including Tate and the National Portrait Gallery in London, have announced their decision to refuse any future funding from the clan. However, the family name continues to adorn the walls of dozens of British cultural institutions: the Sackler escalators at Tate Modern, the Sackler Room at the National Gallery and, of course, the Sackler Courtyard at the V&A. It remains to be seen whether or not these museums will follow in the footsteps of the Louvre and remove the Sackler name.

Avatar photo

Naomi Polonsky

Naomi Polonsky is a London-based curator, art critic, and translator. She studied at the University of Oxford and the Courtauld Institute of Art and has experience working at the Hermitage Museum and Tate...