Temple of Dendur,” Bradley Weber

March 10, 2018; New York Times

It appears that the new focus on corporate social responsibility goes two ways. If it is assumed that philanthropy and activism are part of a corporation’s public image, nonprofits must consider whether they wish to help enhance that brand, which may cloak acts that violate the public good by accepting gifts and establishing partnerships.

Activists calling attention to the nation’s opioid epidemic “unfurled banners and scattered pill bottles…inside the Sackler Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York,” last Saturday, reports Colin Moynihan in the New York Times.

Photographer Nan Goldin and her supporters held their protest at the Sackler Wing of the Met to call on cultural institutions to stop accepting donations from the Sackler Family—specifically descendants of Mortimer and Raymond Sackler, who have amassed a $13 billion fortune largely through the sale of OxyContin from the family-owned Purdue Pharma company.

The publication ArtNews notes that this “was Goldin’s first major public action since she began her public opposition to Purdue in January, when she published an essay and portfolio in Artforum in which she discussed becoming addicted to opioids after being prescribed OxyContin following a surgery, and going clean only after two-and-a-half months in rehab.” Moynihan notes that Goldin was on OxyContin from 2014 to 2017 and “called withdrawal from OxyContin the darkest experience of her life.”

In addition to Goldin, other prominent protestors included artist Tim Davis and fashion designer Havana Laffitte. Earlier this year, Goldin launched a group called PAIN. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now). To date, over 32,000 have signed a petition that reads, in part, “It’s time for the family that helped create this problem to answer to the people worst affected. We demand they fund treatment.” The group also wants addiction treatment funding from “Purdue, which has been accused of using deceptive and aggressive tactics to market OxyContin.”

Goldin informed Moynihan that the Met was chosen as the protest site because of its high profile in the art world and “because they see it as symbolic of the fact that Sackler family members are often viewed primarily as art patrons rather than as owners of a pharmaceutical company.” The Sackler wing at the Met is “named after Arthur, Mortimer, and Raymond Sackler, brothers who in the 1970s donated $3.5 million toward its construction.”

As Joanna Walters reports in the Guardian, the Sackler Wing houses the 2,000-year-old Egyptian Temple of Dendur. Moynihan describes the protest: “Inside the Temple of Dendur on Saturday, security guards implored the protesters to quiet down and move on. About 50 protesters lay on the ground in a symbolic ‘die-in.’ Then, about 20 minutes after the protest had begun, the crowd marched through the museum’s halls, brandishing their banners and chanting, ‘Sacklers lie; people die.’”

Moynihan adds,

As onlookers watched, protesters brandished black banners with the phrases “Shame on Sackler” and “Fund Rehab” and hurled yellow pill bottles with white labels that read “OxyContin” and “prescribed to you by the Sacklers” into the wing’s reflecting pool.

Ms. Goldin announced a series of demands in the form of short statements, including “harm reduction” and “treatment,” that were repeated loudly by the crowd.

“We are artists, activists, addicts,” she shouted. “We are fed up.”

As Moynihan points, Goldin’s “intimate photographs documenting drug use, violence and deaths from AIDS are displayed in numerous museums, including the Metropolitan.”

At the protest, participants distributed pamphlets containing statistics about the crisis “130 people die a day from opioid overdoses,” “at least 200,000 people have died since 1999 from overdoses involving opioid painkillers,” “$35 billion—Purdue profits from OxyContin, the nation’s bestselling painkiller.” Andrew Russeth, writing in ArtNews, also notes that the pamphlet also “includes a list of demands, among them that the Sackler Family and Purdue should invest 46 percent of their profits toward ending the epidemic, and that they should ‘advertise the dangers of their products as aggressively as they sell them to the public.’”

Neither the Sackler family nor the Met responded to Moynihan’s requests for comment. Moynihan does note that, “A Purdue spokesman, Robert Josephson, said the company is ‘deeply troubled by the prescription and illicit opioid abuse crisis’ and is dedicated to helping solve it by paying for prescription-drug monitoring programs and collaborating with law enforcement.”

As for the Sacklers, Moynihan observes that, “Arthur Sackler died before OxyContin was developed, and his descendants say they have not profited from the drug.” For her part, Elizabeth Sackler, a daughter of Arthur Sackler, has remarked that, “The opioid epidemic is a national crisis and Purdue Pharma’s role in it is morally abhorrent to me. I admire Nan Godin’s commitment to take action and her courage to tell her story. I stand in solidarity with artists and thinkers whose work and voices must be heard.”

Moynihan notes that, “Since 1998, foundations run by Mortimer and Raymond Sackler, who died in 2010 and in 2017, and their families have given tens of millions of dollars to cultural institutions including the Dia Art Foundation and the Guggenheim in New York, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.”—Steve Dubb

Correction: This article has been altered from its initial form to correct the relationship of Elizabeth Sackler to Arthur Sackler.