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Last week, New York University (NYU) became the latest institution to remove the Sackler name from one of its buildings. The decision followed a controversial settlement in which Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin founded by members of the Sackler family, agreed to plead guilty to federal criminal charges. The family also accepted a $225 million civil settlement with families of victims of opioid addiction.
Over the past few decades, the Sacklers have gifted millions to dozens of museums and cultural organizations worldwide, building a reputation for themselves as leading philanthropists. But as evidence emerged of the family’s role in perpetuating opioid addiction, the Sacklers have been accused of using philanthropy to artwash Purdue’s criminal marketing practices, which have caused the death of hundreds of thousands.
One of those victims was Mariah Lotti from Watertown, Massachusetts. She developed an opioid addiction in her mid-teens and died from an overdose in July of 2011 at age 19.
Lotti’s story is now told with a phone app that uses augmented reality (AR) technology to transform the Sackler Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York into a memorial site for the teenager and others who have lost their lives to the opioid crisis.
The Mariah App, created by artists Adam DelMarcelle and Heather Snyder Quinn, uses the smartphone’s camera to prompt visuals with facts and figures about the Sackler’s family involvement in the opioid crisis when you point the camera toward different artifacts in the Egyptian galleries of the Sackler Wing. The app also launches video clips telling Lotti’s story and audio recordings narrated by her mother, Rhonda. In addition, the app renames the wing into the “Mariah Lotti Memorial Gallery.”
The Met has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment on the Mariah App.
DelMarcelle, a professor of graphic design at the Pennsylvania College of Arts and Design, became drug policy advocate after his family lost his brother Joe to an overdose in 2014.
Since his brother’s death, DelMarcelle has dedicated his artistic practice to fighting the opioid epidemic, touring the country to give lectures to art students and launching several guerrilla-style actions, including a projection onto the headquarters of Purdue Pharma in Connecticut in 2018.
In a conversation with Hyperallergic, DelMarcelle described his collaboration with Snyder Quinn as an “Augmented Reality takeover” of the Met that aims to “expose the Sackler family’s role in laying the foundation for the opioid epidemic and highlight the philanthropic giving of the Sackler family as a distraction to the destruction they have caused.”
The Sackler Wing, which houses the Temple of Dendur, opened in 1978 with funds provided by the Sackler brothers Arthur, Raymond, and Mortimer. Arthur Sackler died nearly a decade prior to the creation of OxyContin; his wife Jillian has repeatedly claimed that he “had nothing to do with OxyContin,” but DelMarcelle disagrees with her assertion.
“Arthur Sackler was in no way clean,” the artist said. “He built the foundations of the unscrupulous marketing techniques that were designed to manipulate doctors into selling Purdue’s medications.”
In May of 2019, the Met announced that it will no longer accept gifts from the Sackler family, following the footsteps of museums like the American Museum of Natural History, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Tate galleries, and the National Portrait Gallery in London. However, the Met said at the time that it will not remove the Sackler name from its walls due to contractual obligations related to its gift acceptance policies.
“It’s a convenient time to stop accepting gifts from the Sacklers, because the Sackler family has no more money to give,” DelMarcelle said.
Activist groups like PAIN Sackler, founded by artist Nan Goldin in 2017, have advocated for the removal of the Sackler name from the many institutions they have funded over the last decades. Several institutions, like the Louvre Museum in Paris and Tufts University in Boston, have answered this call. A spokesperson for the Met told Hyperallergic that in light of Purdue Pharma’s recent settlement, the museum “will be considering how to handle the presentation of the Sackler name” over the next weeks.
However, DelMarcelle believes that removing the Sackler’s name from the walls of institutions should not be the first priority, calling such a move a “meaningless gesture.”
Instead, DelMarcelle believes that museums and cultural institutions “need to be transparent about their funding sources and need to know when to cut ties with some donors early on.”
“Stripping the Sackler name off the wall would mean something only if it’s replaced with the name of a person who died of an overdose,” he said. “That’s what we did with the app.”