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Art Culture

Report on The Sackler Family

“if museums don’t stand for the basic value of human life what do they stand for?” 

Goldin

For years the Sackler family was known as not just one of America’s wealthiest families, but also an integral part of the success and growth of numerous art, education, health and research institutions. Now, after being identified at the center of the opioid epidemic in the United States which has caused the death and suffering of thousands, the family name has been vilified and one of the most despised in American history. 

The Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art has recently removed the Sackler family name from their galleries following the decision by world-renowned institutions including: the Musée du Louvre, the Tate, the Solomon R. Guggenheim, and The Victoria and Albert Museum. These recent decisions carried out by prominent art institutions around the world came after the family’s involvement in manufacturing and the misrepresentation of results of their new drug Oxycontin, which led to the overprescription of the painkiller. 

Children of immigrants, Arthur, Mortimer and Raymond Sackler all attended medical school and worked as doctors at the Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in Queens, New York before purchasing a small pharmaceutical company in 1952; Purdue-Fredrick. The brothers began building their empire through the successful marketing of their company’s products to powerful doctors. The Sackler family’s involvement within the arts was led by Arthur Sackler, a highly influential art collector and donor. 

Purdue-Fredrick changed its name to Purdue Pharma in 1987 and began production of OxyContin in 1996. The family’s manufacturing location in Stamford, Connecticut produced an endless supply of the drug, and heavily endorsed the product to doctors all over the United States, resulting in the explosion of the opioid epidemic, while simultaneously making billions of dollars in profits for Purdue Pharma. In 2015, Forbes Magazine deemed the Sacklers the richest family in America. Over the years due to their ever-expanding success through the exploitation of Oxycontin users, the Sackler family continued in Arthur Sackler’s art funding footsteps with extensive donations to numerous art institutions around the world, as well as universities including King’s College London, New York University and the University of Oxford. 

The family’s global reputation and impressive success began to find itself under increased scrutiny which led to investigations into their involvement in the opioid epidemic. This resulted in several institutions no longer accepting the family’s donations, as well as the recent removal of the family name from their buildings. In 2020, the family pled guilty to paying healthcare companies and doctors to overprescribe Purdue’s drug. The result is a settlement that included a payment of $225 million to the United States Justice Department, $3.54 billion in a criminal fine, $2.8 billion in a civil penalty and $1.7 billion to avoid facing a plethora of other lawsuits. Through Purdue’s bankruptcy, they were able to maintain much of their family money at the expense of opioid survivors and their families, a devastating outcome for the millions of people affected by Purdue’s deadly creation.  

While many museums around the world stopped accepting donations from the Sackler family as far back as 2019, their name remained on the walls of most of the institutions until only recently. The Hulu series, Dopesick, increased public awareness of the family’s role in the tragic opioid epidemic that plagued America. This, along with other opposition including the efforts carried out by artist Nan Goldin, who founded her campaign P.A.I.N. in 2018 after recovering from an opioid addiction, increased pressure on many institutions. The campaign, which stands for Prescription Addiction Intervention Now, has caused waves of protests and demonstrations across the globe in opposition of the Sackler family, from the Guggenheim and the Museum of Modern Art in the United States to the Tate Museum in the United Kingdom. The Tate’s decision to remove the Sackler name from its institution marks the first British establishment to formally end its association with the notorious family.

While the decisions made by these ever so powerful art galleries and institutions may appear to some as a bold stance in the opposition of the disastrous path left by Purdue and the Sackler family, Goldin argues that while it is certainly a “bold step for institutions to take”, given the vast financial support the family has provided these places for years, “if museums don’t stand for the basic value of human life what do they stand for?” 

Image courtesy of Psiĥedelisto via Wikimedia Commons