At noon today, the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced that it would remove the Sackler name from seven exhibition spaces — including the iconic Temple of Dendur room, with its sweeping and stately slanted windows looking out on Central Park.
Mortimer and Raymond Sackler, who presided over Purdue Pharmaceuticals when the company put OxyContin on the market and masterminded strategies to addict more people to prescription opioids than ever before in history, first made donations to the Met nearly 50 years ago. The Manhatttan museum is just one of dozens of institutions across the US and UK that have adorned the Sackler name; leaked group chats revealed a conscious strategy among the family to use philanthropy as a means of divorcing the family’s public image from the opioid crisis.
Two Sackler galleries will remain in tact at the Met, as they are named for Arthur Sackler, who died in 1987 before Oxycontin was released. (Though some activists argue that Arthur’s work at Purdue set the stage for the marketing tactics that skyrocketed the use of the drug.)
In 2017, photographer Nan Goldin, a survivor of opioid addiction, dug into court records to learn about Purdue’s history of deceptive marketing, and — furious with what she had learned — organized the group Prescription Addiction Intervention Now, or PAIN, to raise awareness about the Sacklers’ wrongdoings and to demand that museums to reject their donations. At first, they created change.org petitions. Soon, they were writing directly to museums; protesting at the world’s largest museums; and staging “die-ins” at major institutions like the Met, the Harvard Art Museum, and the Freer-Sackler Gallery. Their activism was instrumental in raising the profile of the criminal greed of the Sackler enterprise.
Yet PAIN’s advocacy has not always gotten the recognition it deserves. “We learned early on that we were almost never going to get credit for any of the museums’ decisions,” PAIN activist Megan Kepler told Hyperallergic today at the museum.
In 2019, myriad lawsuits were filed against members of the family by states and the federal government. Last year, the Sacklers reached a settlement with the Department of Justice that would require them to pay $4.5 billion over the next nine years. The Sacklers will also face a nine-year ban on putting their name on any institution — though it seems unlikely that any university, cultural organization, or hospital would be keen on accepting their money anytime soon anyways. This year, the publication of New Yorker writer Patrick Radden-Keefe’s Empire of Pain, an in-depth account of the Sacklers’ family and business history over the past three generations, dealt another fatal blow to the Sacklers’ legacy.
Placing their name on galleries and museums has been key to their reputational strategy. Private group chat messages published last year revealed that the Sacklers relentlessly reached out to institutions that they had donated to in attempts to secure positive statements from them in the face of increasing public scrutiny.
In March 2019, the Met announced that it would stop accepting further donations from the Sackler family — after the Tate Modern and the Guggenheim did the same — although it stopped short of outright condemnation. That same year, the Louvre quietly removed the Sackler name from a wing, but justified the move with bureaucratic rationale that did not address the museum’s position on the ongoing Sackler controversy. The Serpentine Galleries in London chose to follow a similar path in March this year, renaming its “Serpentine Sackler Gallery” to “Serpentine North Gallery,” but deferring on taking a stronger stance by labeling it a “rebranding.”
Dan Weiss, president and CEO of the Met, said in a statement, “This gracious gesture by the Sacklers aids the Museum in continuing to serve this and future generations. We greatly appreciate it.” Weiss therein echoes the establishment art world’s conciliatory and avoidant tone in the face of the perpetration of an atrocity of epic proportions. Still, today’s announcement is another testament to the continued success of PAIN’s activism, alongside other drug advocacy organizations like Housing Works and VocalNY. Also a result of this advocacy, last week, the city opened its first overdose prevention centers: sites for supervised injections praised by harm reduction activists, which have proved successful in preventing overdose deaths.
In a tweet about the Met’s decision, Keefe wrote that it is “hard to overstate the significance of this for other museums & universities. Many institutions around the world that still prominently display the Sackler name have been watching the Met as a bellwether, to determine if inaction remains an option.” “If the museum with the most at stake, with the most popular wing in America can do it, it’s hopeful,” Kapler agrees.
“There’s a power to feeling like a group of 12 people affected a major museum like this,” Goldin said. Looking out at the Temple of Dendur, Goldin said about the room, “You can breathe in it now. It has more air.”
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