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Purdue Pharma: The Ethical Implications Of The Opioid Crisis For Museums

Editor’s note: This article is the last of a two-part series on the legal and ethical implications of the modern opioid crisis. You can read the first part here.

The Sackler family, who made their fortune in Purdue Pharma and the introduction of the opioid OxyContin, has an estimated net worth of $13 billion. Aside from being recognized as one of the wealthiest pharmaceutical families in the country, its members are also known to be great contributors to cultural institutions, especially art museums, around the world.

[A] spokeswoman from the Smithsonian told reporters: “At this time, we have no plans to approach any member of the Sackler family for a donation.”

The reach of the Sackler’s philanthropy extends into some of the most widely recognized museums in the US and abroad. Millions of dollars in donations from this family have been used to fund the Sackler Gallery at the Old Royal Naval College in London, the Sackler Center for Arts Education at the Guggenheim in New York, the Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian in Washington DC, the Sackler Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Sackler Wing of the Louvre in Paris. The family name is also displayed at a number of universities, such as in the Sackler Institute for Developmental Psychobiology at Columbia, the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences at Tufts, and the Sackler Library at Oxford. With public criticism rapidly accumulating against this family, institutions which have previously accepted large sums of money from the Sackler’s find themselves in the difficult situation of turning down millions of dollars in potential donations in order to disassociate themselves from the family.

Image of a gray building with a green roof. In front of the building are three people sitting, a patch of grass, and a brick pathway.
The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian. Image by Isomorphic.

In February of 2019, artist and activist Nan Goldin brought this debate into the public eye with a demonstration at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Goldin, who struggled with addiction following an OxyContin prescription, told The Guardian, “Purdue Pharma has no integrity, it’s the opposite, the evil manipulation of vulnerable people. It’s disgusting.” Goldin arranged for a group of demonstrators to enter the Guggenheim and chant criticisms against the family. The demonstrators also unfurled several banners, including ones that read “Take down their name” and “200 dead each day.” Some passed out pill bottles while others, including Goldin herself, laid on the floor to represent the dead. Additionally, the demonstrators handed out sheets of paper resembling opioid prescriptions and released them from staircases into the museum’s atrium, which was said to represent a “blizzard of prescriptions.” This may be a reference to Richard Sackler’s 1996 statement that the launch of OxyContin would be marked by extreme success and would be “followed by a blizzard of prescriptions that will bury the competition.” Goldin wants the Guggenheim and other museums to refuse any future funding from the Sackler’s and to remove their name and affiliation with the museums. She stated, “By failing to disavow them now, by refusing to take down their names, the museums are complicit in the opioid crisis.”

Image looking up towards the ceiling of the atrium. The ceiling is green with white lines, and there are several staircases wrapping around the walls. People on the staircases are dropping slips of paper and holding red banners.
Protesters unfurled banners and dropped prescription papers into the atrium of the Guggenheim. Image by the New York Times.

In the face of escalating public criticism, museums recently began to distance themselves from the family, despite the potential financial impact. In March of 2019, London’s National Portrait Gallery, the Tate, and the Guggenheim in New York announced they would not accept additional money from the Sackler’s. Other institutions have released statements attempting to distance themselves from the family. For example, a spokeswoman from the Smithsonian told reporters: “At this time, we have no plans to approach any member of the Sackler family for a donation.” In the face of these rejections, the philanthropic trust of the Sackler family has announced a temporary halt to its donations.

This movement is part of a larger trend towards a closer examination of the relationship between ethics and money, which extends as far as campaign contributions and investment banking. For example, in June of 2018 the Democratic National Committee voted to ban donations from political action committees tied to oil, gas, and coal industries. This move was intended to reduce the influence of these corporations in policy discussions regarding climate change, but was reversed just two months later over concerns that the policy constituted “an attack on workers.”

Such debates raise questions about the ethics of accepting donations from organizations which take unfavorable stances on social issues or do not reflect the values of the recipient. While the current movement against Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family legally identifies a key factor in the initiation of the opioid crisis, it also could pave the way for a dramatic shift in the way in which society evaluates the ethics of donations.