NPR for North Texas
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Institutions Distance Themselves From Sackler Family Donations


The Sackler family has donated millions of dollars from its pharmaceutical profits to arts institutions in the U.S. and Europe. The family's alleged role in the opioid crisis has led to some of those institutions to distance themselves from Sackler money, including London's National Portrait Gallery and Tate museums, as well as the Guggenheim in New York. NPR's Andrew Limbong has more.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: Even before today's news, two separate gift-giving arms of the Sackler family in the United Kingdom announced they're going to pause all new donations in light of the recent attention. Nan Goldin is not impressed.

NAN GOLDIN: It's like, you can't fire me, I quit. They did it to save face.

LIMBONG: Goldin is a famous artist and photographer who's been at the center of a campaign aimed at getting the Sackler name off of museum walls and Sackler money out of museum coffers. She's been open about her own struggles with opioid addiction, which started with a prescription for OxyContin manufactured by the Sackler-owned Purdue Pharma. As she was getting clean, she read an article about the opioid crisis by journalist Margaret Talbot.

GOLDIN: And in it, she says, where are the activists like ACT UP?

LIMBONG: ACT UP being the '80s protest group responding to the AIDS crisis.

GOLDIN: And that was my call to arms.

LIMBONG: She formed a group called PAIN - Prescription Addiction Intervention Now...


LIMBONG: ...And led protests at the Guggenheim, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.

GOLDIN: I believe the Sacklers live in their museums. That's what they care about. So that seemed the place to get their ear.

LIMBONG: Brothers Arthur, Mortimer and Raymond Sackler - all now deceased - made their riches manufacturing, and more importantly, marketing drugs beginning in the 1950s. At the same time, they established themselves as one of the biggest names in philanthropy. They and their heirs have donated millions to colleges and museums in the U.S. and Europe. Yet some of those heirs are also the targets of the lawsuits. This week's Purdue Pharma settlement in Oklahoma pledges $270 million to fund research and drug treatment. Here's Nan Goldin again.

GOLDIN: That's a drop in the bucket for these people. These people are billionaires.

LIMBONG: A 2016 Forbes ranking estimates that the Sacklers are worth 13 billion.

DOMENIC ESPOSITO: It's really important that someone goes to jail.

LIMBONG: That's Domenic Esposito, another artist who, a month ago, surreptitiously installed a sculpture of a giant bent heroin spoon on the steps of the Sackler-linked Rhodes Pharmaceuticals.

ESPOSITO: It's 10 feet long, basically from the tip of the bowl to the back of the handle. It weighs about 800 pounds.

LIMBONG: Esposito, whose brother is a recovering opiate addict, notes that even after Purdue Pharma pled guilty to false marketing charges in 2007, museums still continued to accept Sackler money.

ESPOSITO: And if I were in these institutions, I - first of all, I would stop taking money. Two is I would re-evaluate what your code of ethics should be, right?

LIMBONG: That sounds simple enough, but it's more complicated when you consider donations made years ago, says Bill Stanczykiewicz. He's assistant dean for external relations at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, which coincidentally is named after another pharmaceutical giant, Eli Lilly, which is developing an opioid alternative.

BILL STANCZYKIEWICZ: These larger gifts, including from corporations, including from corporate leaders, almost always are made with a specific gift agreement. And both sides sign that gift agreement. And guess what? That now becomes a contract. So unless the language is clear in the gift agreement that the nonprofit has the right someday to give the money back, has the right someday to take the name down, this can become a point of legal contention.

LIMBONG: For instance, the Arthur M. Sacker Museum at Harvard told NPR that because Sackler gave his money almost 40 years ago and because of, quote, "legal and contractual obligations," it doesn't plan on removing the Sackler name. A lot of other arts institutions have been tight-lipped.

But for a little context, it's helpful to go back to the 1990s, when museums were under pressure for taking money from the big tobacco company Philip Morris. Mindy Duitz, then director of the Brooklyn Children's Museum, summed up the ethical dilemma for NPR in 1991.


MINDY DUITZ: As a fundraiser, I think all money is tainted if I want to think about it in terms of politics or where it comes from. Is it the most ideal, clean sort of thing? And I can't even ask that question. The question I ask is, is what we're doing important? Is it right? Is it done well? Does it deserve support? And does it deserve to exist? And the answer is yes, and therefore we have to ask all potential sources and see what we can get.

LIMBONG: But today, artists Domenic Esposito and Nan Goldin find that kind of reasoning unacceptable. They say they aren't just fighting a multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical company, they're talking about the stigma everyday people face who are caught up in the opioid crisis - addicts, their families and loved ones. Andrew Limbong, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.