Should Museums Be Held Responsible For Taking Donations Tied To Opioid Sales?

By Victoria Kim 12/13/17

Some wonder if cultural institutions are being unethical by taking money from donors who've made a fortune off the sale of OxyContin.

Interior of The Guggenheim Museum
The Sacklers have donated millions to the Guggenheim Museum in New York

“To what degree are cultural institutions responsible for vetting every dollar they receive?”

This question was posed in the New York Times by writer Colin Moynihan, in light of recent reports about a branch of the wealthy Sackler family, who made a good part of their fortune from sales of OxyContin, and their ubiquitous presence in the world’s most prestigious cultural institutions.

Detailed reports in Esquire and The New Yorker prompted renewed interest in the Sacklers, who have donated millions to The Guggenheim, the American Museum of Natural History, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum, and more, since the 1970s.

Though the Times does say that “the Sacklers personally were not accused of wrongdoing,” Raymond and Mortimer Sackler built Purdue Pharma to what it is today, generating annual revenues of about $3 billion, the bulk of that from sales of OxyContin. (Purdue is only the American arm of the family’s global pharmaceutical empire.) 

In 2015, the Sacklers were added to Forbes’ list of America’s Richest Families, edging out the Mellons and the Rockefellers with their $14 billion fortune.

But given that Purdue is now faced with lawsuits from at least 25 cities and states, based on accusations that the company downplayed the addictive potential of OxyContin and ruthlessly pushed sales of the drug, it does provoke at least a little discomfort about the family’s deep-rooted relationships with our most distinguished cultural institutions.

As Andrew Ross, a professor of social and culture analysis at New York University, explains, “That’s a risk museums take on by having these sorts of trustees and donors. They are supposed to have ethical values baked in, and because they trade in culture we expect different standards from them.”

On the other hand, it doesn’t seem right to deprive the arts from this substantial support, either. 

The source of this funding doesn’t seem to be a major concern for museum-goers. “Historically, museum audiences have not shown evidence of being terribly concerned about sources of income for museums,” said Susie Wilkening, a museum consultant in Seattle. 

It’s unlikely that these arts institutions would reject donors’ money, said Reynold Levy, a former president of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City.

The Times reached out to 21 cultural organizations including The Guggenheim and Brooklyn Museum, who are listed as having received “significant sums” from the Sacklers. 

Many of them declined to comment on the story, but the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, which received about $13.1 million from the Dr. Mortimer and Theresa Sackler Foundation in 2012, replied, “We regularly asses our funding activities to ensure best practice. The Sackler family continue to be an important and valuable donor to the V & A and we are grateful for their ongoing support.”

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr