Activists Litter Museum with Pill Bottles, Stage "Die In" to Protest Sackler Family Donations

By Paul Gaita 03/13/18

Protestors threw pill bottles marked "OxyContin" and "prescribed to you by the Sacklers" into a reflecting pool in a wing named for the family.

Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City

A protest erupted at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met) in New York on March 10, staged by activists led by the artist Nan Goldin, who opposed contributions made to cultural institutions by the Sackler family, members of which founded the company that would become Purdue Pharma, the manufacturers of OxyContin.

Goldin, a celebrated photographer who survived a dependency to the prescription painkiller that nearly claimed her life, led a group of 50 individuals to a wing of the Met named for the Sackler family where they threw pill bottles marked "OxyContin" into the wing's reflecting pool. Goldin also issued a call for Purdue to fund addiction treatment.

The New York Times reported that the protest took place on the afternoon of March 10 at the Temple of Dendur, an Egyptian temple installed in the Sackler Wing in 1978. Activists produced banners with "Shame on Sackler" and "Fund Rehab" printed on them and flung the yellow pill bottles, some of which had labels that read "prescribed to you by the Sacklers."

Golden then read a series of demands which called for emphasis on harm reduction and treatment, which were repeated by the crowd.

When security guards attempted to quiet the crowd, the activists lay on the floor of the museum wing in what the Times called a "die-in." From there, the group carried their protest through the museum, chanting, "Sacklers lie, people die." Once outside, Goldin again addressed the group, stating, "We're just getting started. We'll be back."

Foundations operated by members of the Sackler Family have donated millions of dollars to museums like the Met since 1998. The Times revealed that brothers Arthur, Mortimer and Raymond Sackler donated $3.5 million to fund the construction of the wing at the Met, and the museum has also received $190,000 between 2012 and 2016. Institutions like the Guggenheim in New York and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London have all received funds from Sackler foundations.

But Arthur Sackler, who was a pioneer in medical advertising, also held one-third of Purdue Frederick, a company co-owned by his brothers Mortimer and Raymond, but died in 1987, and his estate sold his share in the company to his siblings. 

Purdue Frederick would later become Purdue Pharma, which would in turn bring OxyContin to the market in 1996; the pain medication would achieve $1 billion in sales by 2001, and aggressive marketing of the drug to medical professionals has been attributed in part to the opioid epidemic plaguing the United States and abroad.

Goldin is among those who became dependent on OxyContin after taking the painkiller to deal with a case of tendinitis in 2014. By her account, she became dependent on the drug and at one point, overdosed on a mixture of heroin and the synthetic opioid fentanyl—cheaper alternatives.

Goldin has been sober since 2017, and has focused some of her energy and art on addressing the crisis and the Sackler family's alleged role, most notably in a series of portraits and an essay in the January 2018 issue of Artforum which detailed her struggle. 

She has also called for the Sackler family to assist those impacted by the opioid epidemic by funding treatment and education. Elizabeth A. Sackler, who founded a center for feminist art at the Brooklyn Museum, and who is the daughter of Arthur Sackler, stated that she "admired" Goldin's courage and commitment to the cause while admonishing Purdue's role in the opioid epidemic.

According to the New York Times, Arthur Sackler passed away prior to the development of OxyContin while other family members claim "they have not profited from the drug."

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.