Domino Effect: Have Sackler Donations Finally Become Toxic?

The National portrait gallery in london. Flik47/shutterstock

The National portrait gallery in london. Flik47/shutterstock

Back in February, I wondered if organizations would return or refuse donations from the Sacklers in the wake of new revelations that specific family members like Richard, former chairman and president of Purdue Pharma, played a far more extensive role in promoting OxyContin than previously known.

Over a month later, we have an answer.

On March 19th, London’s National Portrait Gallery (NPG) became the first major art museum to put a donation from the Sackler family on hold when it announced it would not accept a $1.3 million grant from the Sackler Trust. The dominos began falling in quick succession.

A few days later, the Tate announced it will reject all future donations from the Sackler Trust. On March 22nd, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York became the first major American museum to announce it would no longer accept donations from the family. On March 25th, the Prince’s Trust, a charity set up by the Prince of Wales to help young people into education, training and work, renounced future Sackler donations.

The same day, the Sackler Trust said it would temporarily cease all philanthropic giving in the U.K. so the issue of family members’ alleged role in fueling the U.S. opioid epidemic “will not be a distraction for institutions that are applying for grants.” The Dr. Mortimer and Theresa Sackler Foundation, a smaller charity that gives funds on behalf of the wider Mortimer Sackler family, also suspended all charitable giving in the U.K.

On March 26th, Purdue Pharma and the Sackler Family agreed to pay $270 million to the state of Oklahoma to avoid going to trial over the company’s role in the opioid epidemic. Two days later, New York state prosecutors filed a lawsuit against OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma and the Sacklers, alleging they fraudulently transferred funds out of the company.

”The Difference Between Good and Evil”

Events are unfolding quickly. The first British and American museums pledged to refuse Sackler cash. That’s a momentous and portentous development. And with Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family facing approximately 1,600 lawsuits, we’re embarking on not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning, to paraphrase Churchill.

As a result, a few questions come to mind: Why did three museums refuse Sackler family donations in one week? After all that’s come to light in the last year, why are organizations still holding on to past Sackler donations or, at the very least, refusing to renounce future gifts? And how much longer can these organizations sidestep this issue?

Let’s begin by taking a closer look at the British institution that catalyzed this startling chain of events.

In June 2016, the Sackler Trust pledged $1.3 million as part of the NPG’s “Inspiring People” project, a $47 million initiative to revamp the gallery. The gallery’s ethics committee spent a year debating whether to accept the money. Meanwhile, photographer and activist Nan Goldin threatened to boycott the institution and cancel a planned retrospective if it accepted the grant. Goldin has called on art institutions to reject future gifts from the Sacklers and to remove the family’s name from the walls of their buildings. 

On March 19th, the NPG released a statement reading, “The Sackler Trust and the National Portrait Gallery have jointly agreed not to proceed at this time with a £1,000,000 gift from the Sackler Trust.” A spokesperson for the Sackler Trust also issued a statement, a portion of which read, “The allegations against family members are vigorously denied, but to avoid being a distraction for the NPG, we have decided not to proceed at this time with the donation. We continue to believe strongly in the gallery and the wonderful work it does.”

Speaking to ArtNet News about the NPG’s decision, Goldin said, “I’m not responsible for this. I hope I had an impact. I make a lot of noise and they knew my attitude; I think the National Portrait Gallery knows the difference between good and evil.”

Up until March 19th, it seemed as if museums—particularly those in America—planned on riding out the controversy. Institutions like the Smithsonian, which previously received $50 million in donated work and $4 million for a museum, said it had no plans to remove Arthur Sackler’s name or return the donated money or art. And the Metropolitan Museum of Art issued a statement in February saying it was “engaging in a further review of our detailed gift acceptance policies, and we will have more to report in due course.”

Esquire and the New Yorker published extensive pieces in the fall of 2017 revealing how the Sackler brothers fueled the opioid epidemic. And all the way back in 2007, three former Purdue Pharma executives pleaded guilty to criminal charges that they misled regulators, doctors and patients about OxyContin’s risk of addiction. The executives paid $34.5 million in fines; Purdue paid a then-record $600 million.

Why have American organizations been dragging their feet on the issue of Sackler donations?

Naming Names

Amir Pasic, dean of the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University, has said that organizations may be reluctant to refuse Sackler cash because they’d have to acknowledge that some family members were more complicit in the opioid epidemic than others. “What do you do?” he asked. “Decide these are bad Sacklers, these are the OK Sacklers?” (Click here for an extensive review of the Sackler family and its ties to Purdue Pharma.)

I never found this argument particularly convincing. Organizations make calculated—and admittedly, relative—moral judgments all the time, whether it’s returning gifts from sexual predators or oppressive governments. The NPG agreed with this line of thinking.

The NPG received donations from the Sackler Trust, whose chair is Dame Theresa Sackler, the widow of Mortimer Sackler, who, along with his brother Raymond, presided over Purdue Pharma and the roll-out of OxyContin. Theresa was named in the New York lawsuit, alleging that she and seven other family members used a number of corporate entities “as vehicles to transfer funds from Purdue directly or indirectly to themselves.”

Theresa is also a board member of the Victoria and Albert Museum and a trustee of the Tate Foundation. In a statement to the BBC, Sackler said, “I am deeply saddened by the addiction crisis in America and support the actions Purdue Pharma is taking to help tackle the situation, whilst still rejecting the false allegations made against the company and several members of the Sackler family.”

The Guggenheim decision was even more striking, as the museum’s press release called out gifts received from members of the “Mortimer D. Sackler family.” Mortimer’s son from his second marriage, Mortimer D. A. Sackler, served as Purdue Pharma board member since 1988, eight years before OxyContin was introduced. After nearly 20 years as a trustee at the Guggenheim, he stepped down last year. Sackler’s spokeswoman said he was “overextended.” He was also named in the New York lawsuit.

Are Mortimer and Theresa innocent until proven guilty? Absolutely. Is it a bad look for museums to take money from their respective philanthropic entities? Absolutely.

It seems reasonable that the museums in question engaged in a cost-benefit analysis and decided that the drawbacks—brand damage, protests, and the opportunity costs of continually responding to the issue—outweighed its benefits. Speaking to the Guardian, Goldin, who staged protests at the Guggenheim and the Met, said she was ready to “create chaos” if the Tate had not disavowed Sackler money. “It was going to be creative,” she said.

They Keep Hanging On

At this point, it’s worth remembering that none of these museums are returning millions of dollars worth of donations. This is an important distinction replete with separate layers of complexity.

Writing in the Washington Post, Benjamin Soskis alluded to what is the primary reason that organizations are hanging on to Sackler cash, and it’s the fact that unwinding “naming” gifts would involve considerable legal hurdles. That said, the obstacles aren’t insurmountable. “Once the cost of doing nothing gets too high in the long run, charities may implement costly options to terminate the association” with previous Sackler donations, predicted Terri Lynn Hedge, professor of law at Texas A&M University. (We’ve analyzed the legal and practical issues around returning gifts and revoking naming rights in a number of posts, including here, here, here, and here.)

One factor that could make it easier for institutions to return Sackler money right now is that the family and its lawyers have their hands full. Dozens of high-profile legal battles to ensure their name remains on buildings probably won’t help them in the court of public opinion.

Second, Soskis argues that Sackler cash can “provide a civic opportunity” or be justified when viewed through the lens of “utilitarian calculus.” In other words, in the cutthroat world of museum and higher ed fundraising, these donations advance the institution’s mission. Defensive university and museum administrators have been relying on this line of defense quite a bit as of late, often with mixed results.

“Returning the money to the Sacklers would not undo the damage of the opioid crisis or punish the family or the company they are associated with,” said University of Connecticut spokeswoman Stephanie Reitz. “Rather, it would hamper the work of UConn students and researchers who have no connection to the issues at hand and have done nothing wrong.”

This line of reasoning may be understandable since it comes from a spokeswoman at a beleaguered state school. Affluent universities sitting on endowments worth tens of billions? That’s a harder sell. Especially as more unsavory revelations about the Sacklers keep coming.

Richard Sackler, son of Raymond, is also named in the New York lawsuit. Richard served as Purdue’s president from 1999 to 2003, when OxyContin sales were at their peak. Documents released by the state of Massachusetts regarding a separate lawsuit portray him as particularly repellent.

He embraced Purdue’s plans to conceal OxyContin’s strength from doctors. After learning that a federal prosecutor reported 59 deaths from OxyContin in a single state, he wrote to fellow executives, “This is not too bad. It could have been worse.” And when the full extent of OxyContin abuse became known to Purdue executives, Richard, in a confidential email, wrote, “[W]e have to hammer on the abusers in every way possible. They are the culprits and the problem. They are reckless criminals.”

In 2009, Richard donated $3 million to establish the Richard Sackler and Jonathan Sackler Professorship in Internal Medicine at Yale. Questioned in late 2017 about Sackler gifts, Yale University President Peter Salovey told the Yale Daily News, “There’s no doubt that we have an opioid addiction crisis in this country. “It is also clear that generosity from the Sackler family has funded issues core to Yale’s mission.”

Salovey’s talking points strain credulity. For starters, Yale’s “mission” hopefully includes more than amorally vacuuming up donor dollars. And second, Yale’s “mission” won’t be imperiled by the loss of a $3 million grant. Its last capital campaign closed in 2011 after raising $3.88 billion. In July of 2018, Yale launched the silent phase of its next major capital campaign.

I suspect that by the time you finish reading this article, Yale has raised at least $3 million.

Philanthropy as “Reputation Laundering”

Which brings me to another reason the administrators remain reluctant to return or refuse Sackler cash: The Sacklers are nice people.

This may sound a bit odd, but remember, philanthropy is built on relationships, some of which span decades. In many cases, administrators and fundraisers probably considered the Sacklers to be their friends. And no one wants to throw their friends under the bus.

Asked whether Yale considered the source of the Sackler family’s wealth a factor in deciding whether to accept their donations and why the university ultimately accepted them, Yale’s Dean of the School of Medicine Robert Alpern said the family had always been professional and never asked for anything in return.

Let’s set aside the absurd idea that good manners can erase an alleged role in propagating the opioid crisis. Alpern should understand that donors always ask for things in return. That is a cardinal rule of big-time philanthropy. If the Sacklers—or any other donor—wanted nothing in return, the gift would have been made anonymously. What the Sackler family got “in return” are buildings adorned with their name, effusive praise, ribbon-cutting ceremonies, good PR, and maybe, just maybe, a sliver of psychological absolution.

Mike Moore, a former Mississippi attorney general who is now one of the attorneys representing more than 1,200 cities and counties suing Purdue and other companies, provided a far more clear-eyed analysis of the Sacklers’ decades of giving. Moore called the Sacklers’ philanthropy a form of “reputation laundering.”

Yale hasn’t been alone among elite schools in facilitating this makeover. The Sacklers have given millions to American universities like Cornell, Stanford, Harvard and MIT. Administrators at these institutions may also believe that refusing Sackler cash will threaten their mission or that the Sacklers and other mega-donors give with purely altruistic motives. But believe it or not, schools have actually refused Sackler cash without having to declare bankruptcy.

The University of Washington announced it was discontinuing a program funded with $1.5 million in Sackler money that has supported 21 postdoctoral researchers. “I think, like everyone, we were surprised by the extent of what was reported in terms of the alleged practices of members of the family in relation to the marketing [of OxyContin],” said Victor Balta, a spokesman for the university.

Meanwhile, Columbia University said it had “re-evaluated accepting donations from the Sackler family’s philanthropies and [was] not taking gifts from them.” Tufts issued a similar press release.

The Guggenheim Goes There

If leaders at American universities and museums have compelling reasons for keeping Sackler cash or accepting it in the future—especially if the donations in question are relatively small—they’re going to have to make a much stronger argument than those offered by Yale’s Salovey and Alpern.

Indeed, Goldin considers American organizations’ persistent inaction on the matter disturbing, telling Artnet News, “Museums need to live up to their mandate and their mandate is to be a repository for the best of human values. Universities are supposed to be places of vision and learning.” Goldin found it “outrageous” that no major U.S.-based institutions, as of March 19th, had publicly refused Sackler funding.

Less than three days later, however, the Guggenheim did precisely that.

The Guggenheim’s press release said the museum received a total of $7 million in gifts from members of the Mortimer D. Sackler family initiated in 1995 and paid out through 2006 to establish and support the Sackler Center for Arts Education.” The museum received an additional $2 million between 1999 and 2015. “No contributions from the Sackler family have been received since 2015,” read the release.

The museum’s data points underscore another (admittedly cynical) reason that museums may find the anti-Sackler pledge to be a palatably low-risk proposition: They aren’t leaving obscene amounts of money on the table. While the Guggenheim, according to Mother Jones, has been the fourth-largest recipient of Sackler donations this century, it received a total of $9 million spread over the past decade. For a museum of the Guggenheim’s stature, that’s small potatoes. (According to the New York Times, the Guggenheim also received a paltry $2.49 million from the Mortimer D. Sackler Foundation.)

Similarly, according to the Guardian, the Dr. Mortimer and Theresa Sackler Foundation and Sackler Trust gave roughly $5 million and $10 million, respectively, to U.K.-based organizations in 2018. 

Laying out a Roadmap

Again, returning Sackler cash—or at the very minimum, refusing future donations—sounds like a no-brainer, but American museums, like universities grappling with the issue of revoking honorary degrees, have lacked a roadmap to navigate these uncharted waters.

NPG’s decision was important because it laid out an ethical and public relations escape hatch for other institutions to emulate. The gallery also had help. A recent National Audit Office report advised museums to be increasingly diligent about reviewing any donation that “creates an association with an individual or entity which is perceived to be inappropriate or unethical by other stakeholders.”

NPG graciously thanked the Sacklers for their years of support without issuing a stern moral condemnation. Upon refusing the gift, NPG chair David Ross said, “I acknowledge the generosity of the Sackler Family and their support of the arts over the years. We understand and support their decision not to proceed at this time with the donation to the gallery.”

Tate, which has received more than $5 million from Sackler family trusts over the last two decades, took a similarly gracious approach. “The Sackler family has given generously to Tate in the past, as they have to a large number of U.K. arts institutions,” its statement read. “We do not intend to remove references to this historic philanthropy. However, in the present circumstances, we do not think it right to seek or accept further donations from the Sacklers.”

A Guggenheim spokeswoman declined to explain its rationale for the move or its decision-making process.

Cross-Atlantic Ironies

Many commentators have noted that while the opioid epidemic continues to ravage the United States, British institutions ultimately took the lead on this issue. In fact, while not a “major” institution on par with the NPG or Tate, South London Gallery returned $164,000 to the Mortimer and Theresa Sackler Foundation last year, paving the way for the NPG’s decision.

In a March 17th piece in the Sunday Times of London, art critic Waldemar Januszczak implored other British institutions to follow the NPG and Tate’s lead. “In these days of instant social media condemnation,” he wrote, “it will no longer be as easy for our art galleries to turn a blind eye to where their money is coming from. If they have to cut down on their ever-growing expansion plans and build fewer Sackler Rooms, so be it. It’s a small price to pay for stepping over, finally, to the side of the angels.”

British institutions’ solicitation and subsequent rejection of Sackler cash reveal yet another layer of irony: European museums have been methodically transitioning to American-style big-time philanthropy—the Brits call it “sponsorship”—as public funding for the country’s national museums has declined over the past decade. The largest recipient of Sackler cash since 2001 is London’s Victoria and Albert Museum to the tune of $12.7 million.

Given this new reality, not everyone is thrilled with developments in the U.K. Professor Christopher Frayling, a former rector of the Royal College of Art and former chairman of the Arts Council England, argued that drawing rigid moral guidelines will have a deleterious effect on a British arts ecosystem increasingly reliant on private dollars.

“If we become too squeamish about that one-third [of funding] associated with sponsorship, then I think a lot of damage will be done to the arts,” he said. “If you look at the performing arts, the museums, the visual arts, the Sackler name is all over this country. It’s had a huge effect over the last 10 years… I’m worried that it’ll lead to a sort of moral panic in the arts world where lines are drawn.”

To Frayling’s point, Jess Worth, the co-director of campaigning organization Culture Unstained, foreshadowed another kind of domino effect looming in the distance. The NPG’s refusal of Sackler cash, she told the Guardian, “raises the question of whether the gallery will now apply the same standards to its BP sponsorship deal or continue to promote a fossil fuel company in the midst of a climate crisis. Waved through with minimal scrutiny in the past, BP sponsorship now—like the Sackler donation—looks ethically untenable.”

The “End of the Beginning”

So where do things currently stand?

At the time of this writing, the Guggenheim is the only American museum to publicly renounce future Sackler gifts. On March 25th, a spokeswoman from the Smithsonian threaded the needle a bit, saying, “at this time, we have no plans to approach any member of the Sackler family for a donation.” And Ken Weine, vice president and chief communications officer for the Met, said it was aware of Tate’s announcement, but that the museum had nothing to add to the statement issued last month by Daniel Weiss, the Met’s president and chief executive.

But at the very least, the NPG’s gallery has given organizations an opening. Let’s not lose sight of that. For the past year and a half, museums and universities repeatedly sidestepped the issue. Administrators cautioned against setting a dangerous precedent or imperiling the institution’s mission. Lawyers sighed and shook their heads in resignation. PR offices issued milquetoast and evasive statements. Commentators cautioned against judging the various players. Recipients of Sackler largesse attested to their admirable selflessness.

Then the NPG, the Tate, and the Guggenheim refused future Sackler dollars, while the University of Washington discontinued a program funded by Sackler donations—and the next day, the sun still rose in the east.

Adrian Ellis, director of AEA Consulting, which works with nonprofits in the United States, Britain and elsewhere, said that the rejections of Sackler money would put pressure on other museums to state what funding they will and will not accept. Looking ahead, keep an eye on some of the other recipients of Sackler donations, including the New York Academy of Sciences, Dia Art Foundation, and the American Museum of Natural History. These institutions can’t sit on the fence forever.

In the meantime, Goldin isn’t celebrating. Upon hearing of the news that the Sackler Trust was suspending its grantmaking, Goldin told BBC Radio 4, “I would appreciate the news if I heard that their money was going to pay reparations for the people whose lives they’ve ruined and the communities they’ve destroyed. There’s 300,000 people dead in this country. Their money should go to in some way pay for all the damage they’ve done.”

As it turns out, the Sacklers, who were not named in the Oklahoma lawsuit, agreed to contribute $75 million over five years to a new addiction treatment and research center at Oklahoma State University in Tulsa. Commenting on the settlement, Abbe R. Gluck, a professor at Yale Law School, said, “Purdue appears to have concluded that it was less risky to settle the Oklahoma case than have the allegations publicly aired against it during a televised trial and face exposure to what could have been an astronomical jury verdict.”

The Dr. Mortimer and Dr. Raymond Sackler families issued a statement after the settlement, a portion of which read, “While the agreement announced today is not a financial model for future settlement discussions, the establishment of the National Center is a unique and important step that we hope will save lives by creating breakthrough innovations in the prevention and treatment of addiction, and point toward how we can achieve a national resolution.”