Activists including the artist Nan Goldin protest bankruptcy settlement shielding the Sackler family from prosecution

Demonstrators plant cardboard tombstones outside a New York courthouse to call attention to Purdue Pharma’s role in deaths from the opioid painkiller Oxycontin

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Cardboard tombstones honouring opioid overdose victims, arrayed by protesters outside a federal courthouse in White Plains, New York Associated Press

Cardboard tombstones honouring opioid overdose victims, arrayed by protesters outside a federal courthouse in White Plains, New York Associated Press

Amid a protest led by the artist Nan Goldin, activists set up cardboard tombstones this week outside the US Bankruptcy Court in White Plains, New York, to challenge a proposed settlement in the bankruptcy trial of Purdue Pharma, the maker of the opioid painkiller Oxycontin.

Many art institutions have distanced themselves from Purdue Pharma in recent years amid a furor over how the company intentionally misled doctors about the addictive qualities of Oxycontin, which has led to an opioid crisis claiming nearly 500,000 lives. Purdue Pharma is owned by members of the vastly wealthy Sackler family, who are counted among the world's most prominent arts philanthropists.

Purdue Pharma’s proposed settlement would give sweeping immunity to the Sackler family and shield its members from future litigation. The Sacklers would pay roughly $4.5bn of their personal fortune and give up ownership of Purdue Pharma, and in turn admit to no wrongdoing and be protected from any future opioid-related lawsuits.

The art website Hyperallergic led the way in reporting how Goldin and her organisation Pain Addiction Intervention Now (PAIN) protested such an outcome on Monday. The artist gave a speech and carried a sign demanding that the US Department of Justice prosecute Sackler entities, the organisation reported. A banner unfurled by the group referred to the court as “morally bankrupt”, and the activists scattered fake prescription bottles and faux $1 bills that read “oxy” instead of “one” and bore the phrase “the bankrupt states of America”.

Following her own struggles with opioid addiction, Goldin founded PAIN in 2017 and has since orchestrated protests at Sackler-associated museums around the world. Reacting to the sometimes-raucous demonstrations, institutions such as the Serpentine Galleries and the Louvre have removed the Sackler name from their galleries. Others, including the Tate and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (which still has a prominent Sackler Wing), have said they will no longer accept donations from the family. The campaign by Goldin and PAIN has also spurred broader conversations around money from unethical businesses finding its way into museums, particularly through their board members.

“Opioid overdoses have been ravaging Americans for two decades. Half a million people have been killed by this man-made plague, the origins of which can be traced to one family, the Sacklers, and their private company, Purdue Pharma,” Goldin and PAIN wrote in a 2020 opinion piece for The Art Newspaper. “As the Sacklers were ousted from museums, they went looking for protection from another institution that has long favoured the wealthy and powerful: the US court system. There, they are protected by a flotilla of the most expensive lawyers who have engineered a bankruptcy deal that will grant them immunity from future liability. It is clear that there are two justice systems: one for the billionaires and one for the rest of us.”

Although Purdue Pharma pleaded guilty to federal crimes in 2007 and again in 2020, admitting that it had intentionally misled doctors about the addictive qualities of Oxycontin, members of the Sackler family have not been criminally charged over sales of the drug, and the immunity granted through the bankruptcy proceedings would block attempts at prosecuting them.

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