New Documents in Purdue Case May Pressure Institutions to Rename Sackler-funded Spaces

“Interoffice documents paint a dark picture of profit for the family at the expense of human life,” the artist-activist group P.A.I.N. told Hyperallergic.

Valentina Di LisciaOctober 28, 2020

A protest organized by PAIN Sackler in the V&A’s Sackler Courtyard, demanding the institution remove the family’s name (image by Naomi Polonsky for Hyperallergic)

Last week, Purdue Pharma pleaded guilty to federal criminal charges and reached an $8.3 billion settlement with the Department of Justice for its role in the opioid epidemic. The news has pushedsome institutions that have received funding from the Sackler family, like New York University (NYU) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to reconsider the presence of the donors’ surname on their walls, wings, and schools.

But a more recent development in the Purdue case could put added pressure on cultural entities to wipe the family’s surname definitively. Last night, the House Committee on Oversight and Reform released documents establishing a direct link between members of the Sackler family and Purdue’s over-marketing of its highly addictive prescription drug, OxyContin. Obtained by the committee as part of its investigation into Purdue Pharma, the trove shows that members of the family “recklessly pushed Purdue executives to flood the market with OxyContin to maximize their personal wealth,” according to an official statement.

The newly released documents may present a challenge for some defenders of the Sackler name, who argue that the family has been unfairly associated with, and tainted by, the Purdue company’s actions.

For P.A.I.N., the activist group led by artist Nan Goldin, “this proves once and for all that there is no distinction between the Sackler family and their corporate skin, Purdue Pharma.”

“Interoffice documents paint a dark picture of profit for the family at the expense of human life,” P.A.I.N. told Hyperallergic. “According to their emails, the Sacklers were the driving force behind incentives boosting the sales of higher and higher doses of their powerful narcotic, Oxycontin.”

Since 2018the group has organized multiple protests and campaigns to raise awareness of what it views as the artwashing of the opioid epidemic via the Sacklers’ philanthropic activity. Though the Sackler family has withdrawn more than $10 billion from Purdue since 2008, last week’s settlement did not include any criminal charges against individual family members.

“We are disappointed that DOJ forfeited yet another opportunity to hold members of the Sackler family fully accountable for their role in fueling the devastating opioid epidemic,” said Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, the Chairwoman of the Oversight and Reform Committee, and committee member Rep. Mark DeSaulnier.

Still, news of the company’s guilty plea seems to have had an effect on some institutions with Sackler-endowed programs and spaces. NYU’s Langone Medical Center, for instance, announced that it would drop the Sackler name from its Graduate Biomedical Institute.

A few days ago, the President of Harvard University, where an art museum is named after Arthur M. Sackler, created a Committee to Articulate Principles on Renaming to help address questions of renaming campus spaces, programs, and professorships.

However, a representative for Harvard said that the school does not intend to drop the Sackler name.

“Dr. Sackler died in 1987, before OxyContin was developed and marketed. Given these circumstances and legal and contractual considerations, Harvard does not have plans to remove Dr. Sackler’s name from the museum,” he told Hyperallergic. “The Arthur M. Sackler Foundation does not fund the Arthur M. Sackler Museum at Harvard.”

Meanwhile, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which stopped accepting Sackler gifts last year but has long held it would not rename its Sackler Wing, is now rekindling the conversation. The wing opened in 1978 with funds provided by brothers Arthur, Raymond, and Mortimer Sackler. “In light of the most serious issues involved in the recent guilty plea of Purdue Pharma, and the ongoing public health devastation of the opioid epidemic, over the next weeks we will be considering how to handle the presentation of the Sackler name within the Museum,” a Met spokesperson told Hyperallergic.

On its end, P.A.I.N. has committed to continuing to advocate for the widespread removal of the controversial surname. The group frequently cites a line from the American Alliance of Museums’s Code of Ethics: “Museums and those responsible for them must do more than avoid legal liability, they must take affirmative steps to maintain their integrity so as to warrant public confidence. They must act not only legally but also ethically.”

“For all museums and universities with a Sackler wing, the pressure is on,” urged P.A.I.N. in a statement to Hyperallergic. “Remain true to your ethical mandate and your responsibility to the public and take down their names NOW!”

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