The Serpentine in London has removed the controversial Sackler name from its gallery building. Although the institution underwent a rebranding in spring last year, changing the name of its second space from Serpentine Sackler Gallery to Serpentine North on its marketing materials, the original name remained prominently displayed above the gallery’s main entrance until this year.
A gallery spokesperson said, “we were not in a position to remove permanent signage from the building at that time”. When asked why this was the case, the spokesperson simply explained that the “rebrand was planned in phases”.
Serpentine North, as it is now known, opened in 2013 in a former gunpowder store. It was named after the Sackler family following a £5.5m donation from a foundation run by Theresa and Mortimer Sackler. The Sacklers have a long history of museum philanthropy, with museums around the world accepting donations and naming buildings, wings, galleries and more after the family.
However, museums came under huge pressure to dissociate themselves from the Sackler name in the wake of several lawsuits and a 2017 New Yorker magazine investigation implicating the family firm Purdue Pharma in the US opioid crisis through its aggressive marketing of the addictive painkiller OxyContin.
The Serpentine had been criticised for not distancing itself from the name sooner, including by one of its exhibiting artists Hito Steyerl who likened the sponsorship deal to being “married to a serial killer”.
The gallery has not explicitly said that the name was removed because of the controversies. According to the spokesperson, the decision was “the result of discussions” with the Serpentine board and the Sackler foundation was consulted before the removal.
Several other UK museums have broken ties with the Sacklers. In 2019 the National Portrait Gallery and the Tate both announced they would stop taking donations from the Sackler Trust, while the South London Gallery returned a £125,000 award to the Mortimer and Theresa Sackler Foundation. The Sackler Trust subsequently announced the suspension of “all new philanthropic giving”. With its Sackler Courtyard, which was completed in 2017, the Victoria and Albert Museum is one of the last major London museums to still prominently display the family name.
More recently the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York announced in December that it was removing the Sackler name from its galleries. It followed a letter signed by prominent artists and demonstrations by the activist group Pain (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now), founded by the US photographer Nan Goldin.
The Serpentine North’s first show under in its newly christened space will be a “physical, virtual and augmented reality” exhibition of the US artist KAWS, opening next week (18 January-27 February).