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The Sackler family made their fortune in opioids — and museums are rejecting their donations

The family that owns Purdue Pharma makes huge donations to the art world. The art world is thinking twice about taking their money.

The temple of Dendur inside the atrium at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
The Sackler Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, targeted for anti-Sackler protests.
Wikimedia Commons
Kelsey Piper is a senior writer at Future Perfect, Vox’s effective altruism-inspired section on the world’s biggest challenges. She explores wide-ranging topics like climate change, artificial intelligence, vaccine development, and factory farms, and also writes the Future Perfect newsletter.

Wherever you go in the art world, you’ll run into one prominent name: the Sackler family. The Smithsonian has the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a Sackler Wing; the Louvre does, too (the Sackler Wing of Oriental Antiquities). There’s a Sackler Museum at Harvard and a Sackler Center for Arts Education at the Guggenheim.

Now, these museums are fleeing their Sackler associations. It started in March, with Britain’s National Portrait Gallery announcing the cancellation of a planned $1.3 million donation from the Sackler Trust, and the Guggenheim Museum in New York and the Tate museum in London announcing they won’t accept any further Sackler donations.

On Wednesday, they were joined by some of the biggest names in the museum world. The New York Times reported that the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of Natural History, both in New York City, announced they would stop accepting gifts from members of the family.

The reason? The Sackler family made their fortune (estimated by Forbes at $13 billion) through their ownership of Purdue Pharma, inventor and purveyor of the opioid painkiller OxyContin a drug that has been blamed for the opioid epidemic. Purdue has been criticized for dishonest marketing practices that pushed OxyContin on patients who didn’t need it, or gave them dosage patterns that made the drug more addictive. A recent court filing suggested that members of the Sackler family were involved in the dishonest marketing schemes for OxyContin to increase sales.

High-profile institutions in the art world have now apparently decided they don’t want to be associated with that troubled legacy. They also might have been moved by worries that they’ll be targeted by anti-Sackler protests, as the Guggenheim and the Met have been.

“On occasion, we feel it’s necessary to step away from gifts that are not in the public interest, or in our institution’s interest,” Daniel H. Weiss, the president of the Met, told the Times. “That is what we’re doing here.”

But the decision by these museums to publicly cut ties isn’t just art-world inside baseball. It takes place amid growing skepticism about billionaire philanthropy, and determination that nonprofits not dodge hard questions about social responsibility.

Those are trends likely to spread far beyond the art world — and billionaires beyond the Sacklers might be wondering today if they, too, will be a target.

A $13 billion fortune built in part on OxyContin marketing

The opioid crisis has killed more than 200,000 people. Purdue Pharma has been involved in marketing and distributing opioids since the very beginning of the crisis — and has been, various lawsuits have alleged, involved in deceptive practices dating as far back as 1995.

My colleague German Lopez wrote that in 2007, “Purdue and three of its top executives paid more than $630 million in federal fines for their misleading marketing, and the executives were each sentenced to three years of probation and 400 hours of community service.”

A new round of lawsuits alleges that they kept at the deceptive practices even after they were fined. Just today, Purdue and the Sacklers agreed to a $270 million settlement with the state of Oklahoma over their role in the crisis. Purdue will pay $195 million and the Sacklers $75 million.

Until recently, the Sackler family — some of whom work at Purdue and some of whom spend their share of the Purdue fortune elsewhere — mostly avoided the firestorm over Purdue’s conduct. That started to change in 2017, when the New Yorker’s Patrick Radden Keefe published an in-depth story about the family titled “The Family That Built an Empire of Pain.” Since then, organizations with Sackler wings and Sackler libraries have announced that they intend to examine their relationship with the donors.

The outrage has intensified this year. A recent court filing in Massachusetts alleges that Richard Sackler, Purdue’s then-president, pushed for misleading marketing of OxyContin in other countries; other Purdue decision makers had to talk him down. Sackler is quoted as calling for a “blizzard of prescriptions that will bury the competition.” (Purdue argues that the filing “is littered with biased and inaccurate characterizations of these documents and individual defendants, often highlighting potential courses of action that were ultimately rejected by the company.”)

In February, protesters at the Guggenheim dropped thousands of slips of paper, referencing Sackler’s “blizzard of prescriptions,” and called on the Guggenheim to stop accepting money earned from the opioid crisis.

In March, after a series of embarrassing disavowals by the institutions they funded, two Sackler charitable organizations announced they would temporarily pause their philanthropy.

We don’t really know what to think about billionaire philanthropy

What makes money unethically acquired? If money was unethically acquired, what do you do with it?

This is a question that philanthropists — and everyone who wants their money — have been wrestling with for a very long time. When John D. Rockefeller launched the Rockefeller Foundation (which financially supports Future Perfect, this section of Vox), former President Theodore Roosevelt condemned it, saying, “No amount of charities in spending such fortunes can compensate in any way for the misconduct in acquiring them.”

But since then, we’ve warmed to philanthropy by the very rich. That’s in part because a few prominent billionaires have done it exceptionally well. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are two names that come to mind in any conversation about billionaire philanthropy, and their work on public health, vaccination programs, and global development has saved millions of lives. Development experts have argued that billionaire ventures into global health have made the field more results-oriented.

But Gates and Buffett are not typical billionaires. Most billionaires don’t give nearly as much, or nearly as strategically. Many use their billions to lobby for US policy that benefits them, blurring the line between philanthropy and personal-interest spending.

In his book Just Giving, Stanford University’s Rob Reich examines the power philanthropists exercise in society and argues that we’re too uncritical about it. We applaud people for their generosity without holding it to the same standards we’d hold their other choices to. As Roosevelt might complain, we are letting generosity in spending a fortune compensate for misconduct in acquiring it.

More than anything, the striking thing about the Sackler situation is it’s a sign that this might be changing. Nonprofits are feeling the need to consider where their donations come from. Philanthropy is being examined and critiqued — and protested, in dramatic public fashion, when it seems inappropriate.

The intriguing question is whether this will stop with the Sacklers. In many respects, they’re an unusually clear-cut case: They bear huge responsibility for an opioid epidemic linked to hundreds of thousands of deaths, are embroiled in half a dozen lawsuits over their conduct, and have paid tens of millions of dollars in settlements.

Not all cases will be like that. How should we evaluate billionaires who haven’t broken any laws or pushed their products with fraud, but who’ve done more diffuse, complicated harms — lobbied for special advantages from the government, been careless with customer data or privacy?

It seems clear that we can’t expect sainthood — or billionaires will avoid the gauntlet of public criticism by avoiding donating at all. Personally, I’d be excited about a sort of balancing test for public outrage. How egregious was the misconduct engaged in while they made their fortune? How much good are they doing now? Honestly, if the Sacklers had saved millions of lives with their philanthropy, I might be more hesitant to take them to task for how they built their fortune.

Roosevelt, though, would call that beside the point — and I think Rob Reich would agree. Their take is that we can’t let philanthropy become a way to wash blood off your money.

I see where they’re coming from. What I worry about is that, to some extent, there’s blood on all of our money. It’s not clear where we should draw the line.

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