A surprise protest organized by PAIN Sackler in the V&A’s Sackler Courtyard in 2019 (photo Naomi Polonsky/Hyperallergic)

The Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London has become the latest institution to take down the notorious Sackler name following years of campaigning by artists and activists. Purdue Pharma, the now-bankrupt pharmaceutical giant owned by the Sackler family that manufactured the highly addictive painkiller OxyContin, agreed in March to a $6 billion settlement over its role in the opioid crisis.

Documents show that members of the Sackler family were chief architects of Purdue Pharma’s aggressive marketing schemes, which involved systematically deceiving doctors and patients about the risk of addiction to OxyContin. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 500,000 people in the United States have died from opioid overdoses since the beginning of the crisis in 1999. 

Nan Goldin, who founded the advocacy group PAIN (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) that has led protests and “die-ins” at major institutions supported by Sackler wealth, applauded the V&A’s decision. “It’s never too late,” she told Hyperallergic. “We’ve done actions at six museums and five of them are taking down the name. Only Harvard is left. I feel vindicated.”

A plaque on the since-renamed Sackler Courtyard (photo by Antje Mangeant, courtesy PAIN)

In a statement shared with Hyperallergic, a spokesperson for the V&A said the museum and the family of the late Mortimer D. Sackler, a co-owner and director of Purdue, “mutually agreed” on removing the name from the Centre for Arts Education and Exhibition Road courtyard. “We have no current plans to rename the spaces,” the spokesperson said, adding that the museum was “immensely grateful” to Theresa Sackler, Mortimer’s wife, for her service as a trustee of the V&A between 2011 and 2019.

One of three art museums at Harvard still bears the Sackler name: the Arthur M. Sackler Museum, which houses works from Asia, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East. Recently, renewed calls to rename the museum were made when gun control activist David Hogg tweeted, “Something so beautiful shouldn’t be funded by blood.”

A “die-in” staged by PAIN at the V&A (photo by Antje Mangeant, courtesy PAIN)

“Their excuse is that it’s Arthur Sackler, but that’s very outdated, because we know the damage he did setting up the whole system. He was the first,” Goldin said.

Some members of Arthur Sackler’s side of the family have continued to insist that because he died a decade before the marketing of OxyContin, his philanthropic legacy should not suffer from the same criticism directed at other members of the dynasty. Goldin maintains her stance that Arthur’s name deserves to be removed, too. “He triggered the Valium overdose crisis, and no one ever talks about that,” she said.

The V&A’s decision to remove the Sackler name comes in the same week as a new documentary about Goldin’s campaign against the Sacklers’ philanthropic “art-washing” screens at London Film Festival and New York Film Festival. The film, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival last month.

“It’s very gratifying to see the V&A take down the name. It was totally unexpected,” Goldin said. “It makes our work worthwhile.”

Goldin advocates for decriminalizing drugs and halting the cycle of mass incarceration that disenfranchises people for minor drug offenses while pharmaceutical giants generally get away scot-free. The Sacklers, she believes, should give away all of their wealth — not just $6 billion.

Asked about PAIN’s forthcoming efforts, Goldin stated: “We’re trying to make sure the money goes to the right people, and not to more policing.” 

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