A series of private WhatsApp chats between members of the Sackler family first published by The.Ink this weekend exposes the Sacklers’ reliance on the museums they helped fund as they attempted to clear their names at the outset of the Purdue Pharma scandal. The messages, spanning October 2017 through early June 2019, reveal one of the family’s most egregious public relations strategies: reaching out to their philanthropic beneficiaries in the hopes of securing positive statements and dissociating individual Sacklers from Purdue and the opioid crisis.
Hyperallergic reviewed the chat transcripts, which refer to several institutions that have received Sackler gifts, among them the Dia Art Foundation, the Guggenheim, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York and the Tate and Victoria and Albert Museum in London. In some cases, members of the Sackler family were in direct contact with the press departments at those museums, according to the text conversations.
“I just spoke to head of communications at dia [sic]. They and many other art institutions plus bio medical schools have been reached out to by the New York Times,” read one message from Marissa Sackler to the family sent in October 2017. “Dia shares pr representation with the tate and a number of other art institutes who’ve been contacted. They are all planning to give short positive statements about us being supporters of theirs.”
“Jackie spoke with the Met this morning and they are going to stand by us,” Mortimer Sackler told the group a few months later.
A Met spokesperson told Hyperallergic, “We have no knowledge of this communication. The Met has made clear our position: we suspended accepting funds from the Sackler family in May 2019, and we are currently evaluating our approach in light of recent judicial developments.”
In an exchange from March 2018 about artist Nan Goldin, whose activist group P.A.I.N has staged numerous anti-opioid demonstrations at Sackler-funded institutions, Mortimer Sackler said, “The company extended several invitations to her and she has refused to engage.”
“Here is the thing, if she takes the company up on that offer she could use the meeting as a stunt and she can come out of it saying any kind of crazy thing. She isn’t a rational person who is going to come out saying, ‘I’ve reconsidered my position’. It’s actually good that she hasn’t taken Purdue up on that,” Mortimer Sackler continued.
“Better that the company use her protests as an opportunity to speak to the industry leading work they have been doing to combat prescription drug abuse. What we SHOULD do is make sure that the Guggenheim, AMNH, DIA, etc are not going to say something unhelpful. We should compile a list of organizations and decide who should speak with which,” he added.
Marissa Sackler chimes in: “I speak regularly with dia [sic] on all of this and they fully support us and think Nan Goldin is crazy.”
In a statement to Hyperallergic, Goldin rejected Mortimer Sackler’s claim that Purdue reached out to her.
“The Sacklers never asked me for a meeting — that’s a lie,” Goldin said. “Their idea of ‘rational’ is buying into their narrative where they are victims of these public revelations. They’d probably want me to help them spin their agenda of ‘helping’ to fight the opioid crisis. They didn’t take me or PAIN seriously enough, and now we’ve followed them into bankruptcy and Congress to hold them accountable.”
“I’m proud DIA called me crazy,” Goldin added. “In my day, that was the verification that you were a real artist. We wanted to hold a protest at Dia, one of the largest known recipients of Sackler funding. We cased the museum a couple of times, but there was never anyone there to witness our action.”
A spokesperson on behalf of Dia told Hyperallergic, “We cannot comment on private messages between members of the Sackler family, but needless to say Dia has the utmost respect for Nan Goldin as both an artist and campaigner. In 2018, Marissa Sackler stood down from Dia’s board and we discontinued the Sackler naming associated with our public programs, from which point Dia has not been formally connected with the Sacklers.”
The exchanges published by The.Ink also suggest that the PR firm Edelman was sharing media inquiries sent to cultural institutions directly with the Sacklers. In one message sent to the group chat in early 2018 by Samantha Sackler Hunt, she pasted an email from Edelman that forwards a request for comment from the British reporter Georgie Keate to the Victoria and Albert Museum.
“She appears to be sending versions of this to a number of others,” the Edelman representative writes. “From what I’ve seen so far most are responding with the same types of generic statements they gave the New York Times and all appear supportive.”
Indeed, the relevant article in the Times, published on December 1, 2017, included a line that none of the 21 cultural organizations listed as having received Sackler donations planned to return or refuse them in the future. (Edelman has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s immediate request for comment.)
But the tables turned in 2019, when a spate of museums announced that they would no longer accept Sackler gifts and remove the family name from their spaces, including the Met and the AMNH. The announcements seemed to catch members of the Sackler family by surprise. In a group chat, Sophie Sackler links to an article about the Met’s decision to suspend Sackler family donations and asks, “Did anyone know this was happening?”
According to The.Ink, the trove of private messages were released as part of Purdue’s ongoing bankruptcy proceedings. In October, the company pleaded guilty to federal criminal charges for deceptively marketing and encouraging overprescribing of its highly addictive drug OxyContin, contributing to the opioid epidemic that has killed over 450,000 Americans. Purdue reached an $8.3 billion settlement with the Department of Justice, the largest such settlement ever reached with a pharmaceutical company, but the bankruptcy protections will likely protect Purdue from paying the full amount.
The settlement was also criticized for being too lenient on individual members of the Sackler family, who will not face criminal charges. As recently as last week, in a landmark hearing before the House Oversight Committee, former Purdue board members David and Kathe Sackler expressed regret but continued to deny any personal responsibility for the opioid crisis.
“I’m gratified that the Sacklers lost sleep over our group pulling ‘stunts,'” Goldin told Hyperallergic. “My instinct drove me to target their philanthropy at the same moment they frantically rallied their museums’ trustees and PR for support behind closed doors. I read their minds.”
The Tate and the Victoria and Albert Museum have not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s immediate requests for comment.
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.