Museum Studies at Tufts University

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Are Museums Clean if Their Donations Are Bloody?

(Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The spoon is massive, 800 pounds of steel, with a bent shaft that forms a handle and a blackened center suggesting prepared heroin. Built by artist, fabricator, and person in recovery, Patrick Lynch, this sculpture was recently given to Massachusetts Attorney General, Martha Healy, whose office has brought a lawsuit against Purdue Pharmaceuticals and members of the Sackler family who were involved in the marketing and selling of OxyContin, one of the drugs responsible for the current opioid epidemic. Members of the Sackler family are also named in a similar lawsuit brought by the City of New York. The Sacklers also own another opioid manufacturer, Rhodes Pharmaceuticals, which has also been targeted by the Opioid Spoon Project, which places the sculptures.

This is not the only piece of art-based protest produced around the crisis. Photographer Nan Goldin, who is in recovery from her almost fatal opioid addiction after being prescribed OxyContin, has founded P.A.I.N. Sackler, an organization that stages theatrical protests at museums that have accepted donations from the Sackler family foundation and Purdue Pharmaceuticals, including the Smithsonian Institute, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Brooklyn Museum. P.A.I.N. Sackler’s mission statement demands that these museums and other institutions “remove Sackler signage and publicly refuse future funding from the Sacklers,” as well as, “demand that these institutions publicly disavow the Sacklers, and apologize for having whitewashed the reputation of this criminal family.” (It is worth noting that this blog is affiliated with Tufts University, which has also received large donations from the Sackler family.) P.A.I.N. Sackler does not differentiate between the branches of the Sackler family tree, because the Sackler name cannot be parted from the impacts of Purdue and OxyContin.

In light of the recent legal and protest actions against the Sackler family, some institutions are beginning to reconsider their donation policies, including the Met, where a recent action by P.A.I.N. Sackler filled the eponymous gallery with prescription pill bottles. Massachusetts General Hospital removed the Sackler name from their Pain Center after the opioid crisis began. However, most arts organizations have not taken action, including the Smithsonian, which has a naming agreement in perpetuity for the Sackler Gallery of Asian Art. They have stated that they have no intention of changing the name, although their policy no longer permits perpetual naming agreements, meaning that if the Sacklers donated another wing to a Smithsonian, it would only carry their name for a generation.

Like divestment movements before it, which call for organizations to refrain from investing in industries that are harmful to people or the environment, refusing donations from pharmaceutical companies that profit from addiction and inappropriate medical care is a tool that humanities organizations can use to signal their concerns. Art and culture institutions ostensibly care about documenting and showcasing the human experience, and though that experience may include pain, organizations need not profit off the pain and allow the culprits to launder their names in the process. Elizabeth Sackler, the daughter of Arthur Sackler, and namesake of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, has endorsed the actions of Goldin and P.A.I.N. Sackler while also distancing her father and her branch of the family from Purdue.

Although the family protests blaming Arthur Sackler’s Foundation for the impacts of OxyContin, which was created after he died, the matter is not so simple. Arthur Sackler was a pioneer in marketing drugs directly to doctors, creating the modern pharmaceuticals industry that his descendants profit from. Indeed, the pending lawsuit facing Purdue and Sackler family members in Massachusetts has turned up internal Purdue memos from Sackler family members that show individual Sacklers were directly responsible for encouraging prescriptions of OxyContin while knowing about the addictive qualities of the drug. Other memos discuss the need to paint addicts as the problem and plan to push OxyContin as a safe alternative to Tylenol. Arthur Sackler’s shares of Purdue were sold to his brothers after his death. Had Arthur lived, keeping his shares of Purdue, who can say if his family branch would be as equally implicated in OxyContin’s sales.

In a statement to the Washington Post, Sackler’s widow Jillian stated in part, “Arthur would be horrified to see how this drug has been misused and would be working to find solutions.” If that is true, perhaps the Sackler Foundation should be refocusing their efforts away from cultural organizations and toward harm reduction and recovery support. Maybe the donations they make should not come with named buildings and galleries to publicize and promote the Sackler name as pure philanthropic selflessness. Of course, they have the right to spend their money as they please, but perhaps museums and other cultural organizations should not help them side step more impactful charitable giving by accepting the donations.

Asking Forgiveness Instead of Permission

The Berkshire Museum has gone ahead with the auction and private sale of choice pieces from its collection, including works by Norman Rockwell (whose works were intended for the people of Pittsfield, MA in perpetuity), Alexander Calder, and Frederic Church. They have not yet reached the $55 million cap permitted by the Massachusetts Attorney General, and so may return to the auction block with more pieces, but the majority of the transactions have been completed. In response, the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) has sanctioned the Berkshire Museum, requesting that the association’s 243 members refuse to lend works to the Berkshire Museum or collaborate with it on exhibitions. In a statement the AAMD stated, “Selling art to support any need other than to build a museum’s collection fundamentally undermines the critically important relationships between museums, donors and the public. When museums violate the trust of their donors and the public, they diminish the opportunity and responsibility to make great works of art available to the public.”

Even as this sanction was issued, other voices in the art and museum world rallied to suggest that the current system is flawed. Artsy suggested that the American Association of Museums’ (AAM) policy which only allows collections to be deaccessioned and sold in order to fund the purchase of more art should be modified to permit more diverse uses. They argue that if the goal of museums is to secure collections for the public good, what good comes of large institutions locking away vast amounts of art that may never be displayed? They propose a modified deaccession policy that gives other institutions first opportunity to acquire works, and allows the proceeds from the sales to be used for other purposes beyond acquisitions.

The AAM’s deaccessioning policy intentionally restricts the use of proceeds from deaccessioned collections to prevent liquidation of assets held for the public good from being used to cover up financial mismanagement or other unethical uses. In a recent statement in response to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruling on the Berkshire Museum case, the AAM reiterated their position, “We believe this is a critical issue of ethical conduct and best practice, one tied directly to the public trust. When museums violate the trust of their donors and the public, they diminish the opportunity and responsibility to make our cultural heritage available to the public. This hurts the individual institution and affects the museum field as a whole.”

The AAM and AAMD are certainly working on behalf of the public good, and it is in keeping with their roles as professional organizations  to scrupulously maintain the ethics of the industry, but they may also need to assess their current position. Undoubtedly, institutions across the country with high storage costs and low display space are watching this saga unfold and contemplating if they might withstand the legal and professional scrutiny if it meant they could pursue that capital project, hire that new education staff, or add more robust programming to their schedule. Museums are well aware of their precarious positions in their communities as both trusted sources of information and lean competitors for tourism dollars. It may be time for a careful re-consideration of what constitutes the future of ethical use of funds raised from deaccessioning works. If the AAM  and other professional organizations refuse to seriously consider the issue before institutions, it may be that other museums follow the Berkshire’s lead and ethical debates, court judgements, and sanctions hit the newspapers with a frequency that could alter the public’s faith in museums.

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