More than 70 artists may have helped move the needle on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s recent decision to remove the Sackler name from its galleries.
In a letter to the museum’s board of trustees sent in November and published on 10 December by the New Yorker, artists including Richard Serra, Kara Walker, Ai Weiwei, Maurizio Cattelan, William Kentridge and others denounce the Met’s ties to the Sackler family for their role in fueling the opioid epidemic in the US through the sale and aggressive marketing of the painkiller Oxycontin, which is manufactured by Purdue Pharma, a firm long owned and controlled by members of the family. The letter was started by the artist Nan Goldin, who was addicted to opioids and has led several demonstrations against the Sacklers with the activist group Pain (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) since 2018.
The letter points to the fact that the opioid crisis has killed more than half a million people in the US, while nearly 70,000 people died from opioid overdoses, and also condemns the 2020 settlement reached between the US Department of Justice and members of the Sackler family involved with Purdue Pharma. In the settlement, Purdue Pharma agreed to pay $225m in civil penalties and was cleared from claims that assets from the company were transferred to holding companies and trusts to protect the company from a bankruptcy case. The settlement also granted immunity to the Sacklers and many of their associates from future opioid-related lawsuits.
The letter adds: “The Metropolitan Museum of Art is a public institution dedicated to art, learning and knowledge that generations have created to benefit our society. Honouring the Sackler name on the walls of the Met erodes the Met’s relationship with artists and the public. Given the federal crimes committed by Purdue Pharma and the staggering national death toll, this is a situation of force majeure.”
Last week, the Met announced that it would remove the Sackler name from seven exhibition spaces, including the wing that houses the ancient Egyptian Temple of Dendur. The museum announced that it would refuse future donations from the Sackler family in May 2019 following several protests, including a demonstration on the steps of the museum earlier that year and a demonstration in 2018 in which activists tossed prescription bottles into the pool surrounding the Temple of Dendur.
The decision came as institutions worldwide, including the Musée du Louvre, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Tate and the Victoria and Albert Museum, severed relations with members of the Sackler family following years of protests against them and others accused of fueling and profiting from the opioid epidemic.