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.

Museum Admission Fees

Over the summer, the Metropolitan Museum of Art raised its suggested admission donation to $25. The Museum of Modern Art and our own Boston Museum of Fine Arts have followed suit.

The moves have sparked a number of articles both for and against, and this one from the Art Newspaper website is by far the best, offering a good overview of the questions and challenges that surround the question of what a museum should charge for admission.

What do you think? Do some museums charge too much? Should all museums charge more? Should they all be free?

Museums: Educators or Collectors?

I recently finished reading Thomas Hoving’s memoir, Making the Mummies Dance. Hoving was director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art from 1967 to 1977. He was a fascinating, polarizing figure, and passed away in 2009; his obituary in the New York Times is a thoughtful summation of his life and work.

Hoving had clear, definite opinions about nearly everything. I would highly recommend reading this book; it’s by turns fascinating, horrifying, hilarious, and charming. There’s something in there for everyone to like, and for everyone to hate.

One passage in particular really jumped out at me. Hoving had just finalized the purchase of a seminal work by Velazquez, Juan de Pareja, for the record price of just over $5.5 million, and his director of education, Harry Parker, was not pleased.

I told [chairman of the board of trustees, Douglas] Dillon that Harry Parker and his group would want to be reassured that the priorities of the museum were not changing with such an expenditure.

“One would think that the acquisition of such a world masterpiece is in itself the nucleus of the educational process,” Dillon observed.

But when I told Harry Parker, he flew into a rage. “I cannot believe this!” he cried. You have in one stupid stroke lost millions for this institution! I find this purchase inexplicable and outrageous and indelibly damaging to the museum.”

I chewed him out. “People don’t give a damn what the Rembrandt cost,” I said, “or what the Canova cost, what the Raphael cost, what the Unicorn Tapestries cost – all they care about is that these beautiful, powerful things enhance their lives. They are proud that the museum owns them. Someday you’ll learn that sure, education, outreach programs, liaison with colleges and universities, publishing books and articles is important – but they all pale in comparison to collecting treasures. Collecting is still what it’s all about. Collecting is why people come in the doors. The Juan de Pareja will be the biggest piece of education material you’ve got going for you. The point is – and someday you’ll experience it yourself – that you have to have the guts to reach out and grab for the very best!”

The meeting ended. Harry Parker left, his face black with anger.

The purchase of Juan de Pareja was almost exactly forty years ago. There’s a lot going on in what Hoving – and Parker – say here (or to be more accurate, what Hoving recalls them saying, twenty years later). How much of it is still true? How much of it do you agree or disagree with?

Is collecting still what it’s all about? Do museums exist to collect treasures?

Are these treasures the biggest pieces of educational materials that museums have? Do a museum’s objects have to be “treasures” in order to educate appropriately?

What else would you do with $5.5 million – do you think it’s fair or smart to spend that money on one piece of art?

(For the record, I very strongly disagree with Hoving in this passage; museums are educational institutions before they are collecting ones for me, but there is some truth to what he says. A museum’s collections – whether “treasures” or more ordinary objects – are its greatest educational assets.)

Improv at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

You might well have seen this already – it’s gone viral in museum circles – but just in case you haven’t: King Philip IV recently signed autographs in front of his Velazquez portrait at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Well, sort of.

Scroll down and read the comments on Improv Everywhere’s write-up of the stunt. They’re from an obviously biased source – most people loved the prank – but they also do not seem to be typical museum goers. Here’s a comment that struck fear and hope into my heart: “Museums are so stuffy and pretentious…they need things like this to make them fun places for real human beings. Brilliant!!!!”

Did the Met security guard do the right thing in ushering the actors out? Should museums as a whole be encouraging more of this sort of thing – or less?

(In my ideal world, the Met let them go on for at least an hour, and then sat down to meet with the group about more museum-themed pranks – spontaneous, charming expressions of whimsy that inject life into the galleries. But maybe some of you disagree with me! Comment on this post and let’s start a conversation.)

A Guide to Guidestar

With the advent of the internet age, we all have a LOT more tools in our hands to begin to learn about specific organizations – and particularly specific museums. Whether you’re doing some research into a museum you’d like to work for, trying to get a good picture for how a museum of a certain size operates, or considering donating to a museum, there are some great tools out there that are promoting transparency and openness for nonprofit organizations.

Today, we’re highlighting Guidestar.

Guidestar is essentially a database of all sorts of nonprofit information. Organizations can establish their profiles and post information – financial statements, programs and events, staff listings, and recent news items. There’s also a section in which the organization can advertise its current funding needs.

Guidestar’s mission is: “to revolutionize philanthropy by providing information that advances transparency, enables users to make better decisions, and encourages charitable giving.”

To access the full capabilities of Guidestar, you’ll need to register. It’s easy and free, and they send a minimum of email. So, start here.

Once you’ve registered, you can navigate the site by searching for a specific organization, or try a more advanced search for organizations in a particular area or focus. Doing a general search on “museum” brings up some of the heavy hitters on the first page:

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Museum of Modern Art

American Museum of Natural History

Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Field Museum of Natural History

Organizations are responsible for updating their own information, so what you see is what the museum gives you. The Met, for example, hasn’t put up their budget numbers, but they have linked to their 2007-2009 990 tax forms and their 2010 Annual Report. (Watch this space for a guide to interpreting museum annual reports, by the way.) They don’t have a lot under staff or programs, either.

The American Museum of Natural History offers some different information. It lists all its board members, and gives a programs overview that includes its budget: almost $149 million. The MFA Houston also has all its board members and programs information, though no budget.

After quite a bit of searching and clicking, the best museum profile I found belonged to our local USS Constitution Museum. They have background statements, staff information, financial information, programs information, and they’ve even put up some of their funding goals. Bravo to them. (You’ll notice that a Guidestar user has also given the museum an enthusiastic five star review!)

Most museums put a bare minimum of information in Guidestar, which is a shame – it’s a powerful tool that’s quick and simple to update. Administrative and financial transparency is a hot topic in the nonprofit world right now – check out the Christian Science Monitor’s Guide to Giving for recent articles about that very subject.

Think about it: if you’re trying to figure out where to donate your hard-earned money, do you give to the organization that’s tight-fisted and secretive about how it’s going to use that money, or do you want an organization who opens its books and says “here, here’s how your $20 made a substantive difference in the way we do our work”?

Guidestar also offers other tools for nonprofit professionals, including a series of webinars about development, community outreach, and other important topics.

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