Last week, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art removed the Sackler family name from seven spaces throughout the institution, marking one of the most significant victories for activists seeking to hold the family accountable for its role in the opioid crisis.
The artist Nan Goldin has been at the center of those efforts since 2018, when she founded the organization Sackler P.A.I.N., which stages dramatic public actions calling on museums to remove the family’s name from their walls. Now, the New Yorker has revealed that she was able to enlist a prominent group of artists, including Ai Weiwei, Anish Kapoor, Barbara Kruger, Richard Serra, and Kara Walker, to join the cause.
In a letter sent to the museum board early last month, the 86 artists wrote: “Honoring the Sackler name on the walls of the Met erodes the Met’s relationship with artists and the public. Given the federal crimes committed by Purdue Pharma and the staggering national death toll, this is a situation of force majeure.”
It went on to ask the trustees to take down the Sackler name by its next board meeting, which was on November 9.
“These are some of the most prominent living artists. They are in the Met collection, and people on the board own their work—so if anyone has a voice that matters to them, it’s these people,” Goldin told Artnet News. “I believe the Met itself wanted [the name change] to happen, but in terms of the board and the trustees, I think this may have moved the needle.”
The Met declined to comment on the letter besides saying through a spokesperson that “back in 2019, when we announced a pause on accepting Sackler gifts, we shared that we would engage in a deliberative process, and part of that was to listen to a wide range of voices.”
Goldin went on to say that she was “very surprised” by the list of artists.
“They’re not the usual subjects. Jim Dine, Maurizio Cattelan, Ed Ruscha—this is not the normal list of artist activists,” she said. “I’m not surprised that they have ethical and moral values, or that they care, but getting people activated is difficult.”
For the past four years, P.A.I.N. has operated through the efforts of a team of just 12 to 15 activists, making this groundswell of support all the more impressive.
Goldin credits the recent support for P.A.I.N.’s efforts in part to the media attention illustrating the Sacklers’ role in the opioid crisis, as well as Purdue Pharma’s 2020 guilty plea to criminal charges over its marketing of OxyContin. This year also saw the publication of Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty by Patrick Radden Keefe, and the release of the Hulu drama Dopesick, set in both the boardrooms of Purdue Pharma and in the rural communities perhaps hardest hit by opioid addiction.
“It’s important to remember how this started and to go after big pharma and the whole system that supports it,” Goldin said. “The bankruptcy court, the justice department, Congress—they all failed us. But the museums are coming through.”
The Met’s decision to rename its Sackler spaces follows similar moves by the Louvre in Paris, New York’s Dia Art Foundation, New York University’s Langone Medical Center, Edinburgh University, the University of Glasgow, Tufts University in Boston, and the Jewish Museum Berlin.
Many of those changes were made quietly, without formal announcements. Goldin was unaware that the Jewish Museum had over the summer renamed its Sackler Staircase the “Staircase adjoining the Axis of Continuity” until today, when Artnet News confirmed the rechristening.
“There’s a little bit of a snowball effect,” Goldin said. “We’re thrilled. We feel somewhat vindicated.”
The Sackler name still hangs at institutions such as the Guggenheim Museum and the American Museum of Natural History, the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Tate Modern.
A few of these organizations may be hard to win over. P.A.I.N already protested at the Victoria and Albert, and “they dug their heels in,” Goldin said. “They support the Sacklers unilaterally.”
Moving forward, P.A.I.N. is expanding its work to raise money to combat the opioid crisis by expanding access to resources such as safe consumption sites and drug testing machines. It will also be featured in a museum exhibition in Italy next fall. The group plans to keep the pressure on other Sackler-named institutions, but doesn’t currently have any protests planned.
“I am waiting for the museums to be affected by the Met,” Goldin said. “I want to see what happens.”
Read the full text of the letter and its signatories below.
To: Metropolitan Museum of Art Board of Trustees
As artists we come together to call for the removal of the Sackler name from the walls of the Metropolitan Museum.
Last year, Purdue Pharma, the makers of OxyContin, pled guilty in federal court to three criminal conspiracy charges. They admitted that they defrauded the United States government, lied to the Drug Enforcement Agency, and violated federal anti-kickback laws — paying providers to prescribe more of Purdue’s products. The company also pled guilty to federal criminal charges in 2007, as did the company’s President, Chief Legal Officer and former Chief Medical Officer.
Purdue Pharma is a private company owned by a single family, the Sacklers. This is not a third-party investment, this is a one-to-one relationship. The Sackler family—several of whom trained as medical doctors—were active members of Purdue’s board and micro-managed the company. As was revealed in court proceedings, despite knowing about the addictive dangers of OxyContin for over twenty years, the company aggressively marketed their opioids as less addictive and engaged in schemes to defraud doctors and the U.S. government.
The opioid epidemic has killed over half a million people in the United States alone. Last year, 69,710 people died from opioid related overdoses.
Given these facts, we are horrified by the recent bankruptcy settlement reached in September 2021, which would provide civil immunity to the Sackler family, their unborn heirs, their lawyers, and hundreds of associates. The Sacklers will continue to profit while paying off the settlement. While the Sacklers publicly distance themselves from Purdue, in private the Sacklers secretly entered into a Joint Defense Agreement with Purdue’s legal team, resulting in a $1,000,000 fine by the U.S. Department of Justice. The Department of Justice stated the immunity deal is unconstitutional and illegal and is already appealing the bankruptcy settlement.
We stand alongside the many investigative journalists including Patrick Radden Keefe, and with the artist Nan Goldin, and the direct action group P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now), who have worked to hold the Sackler family accountable despite being subjected to legal threats and other forms of intimidation.
The Metropolitan Museum is a public institution dedicated to art, learning and knowledge that generations have created to benefit our society. Honoring the Sackler name on the walls of the Met erodes the Met’s relationship with artists and the public. Given the federal crimes committed by Purdue Pharma and the staggering national death toll, this is a situation of force majeure.
The bankruptcy settlement bans the Sacklers from putting their name on institutions for nearly a decade, recognizing the connection between their name and the crimes that their company committed. The Louvre, Tufts Medical School and other institutions have removed the Sackler name from their walls. We call upon the trustees to take down the Sackler name on or before its next board meeting of November 9, 2021.
Signed as of November 3, 2021
Linda Goode Bryant
Adrián Villar Rojas
George Bures Miller
Updated as of November 8, 2021
Lawrence Abu Hamdan
Charline von Heyl
George Bures Miller
Updated as of November 15, 2021
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