The Met Will Turn Down Sackler Money Amid Fury Over the Opioid Crisis

The Metropolitan Museum of Art said on Wednesday that it would stop accepting gifts from members of the Sackler family linked to the maker of OxyContin, severing ties between one of the world’s most prestigious museums and one of its most prolific philanthropic dynasties.

The decision was months in the making, and followed steps by other museums, including the Tate Modern in London and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, to distance themselves from the family behind Purdue Pharma. On Wednesday, the American Museum of Natural History said that it, too, had ceased taking Sackler donations.

The moves reflect the growing outrage over the role the Sacklers may have played in the opioid crisis, as well as an energized activist movement that is starting to force museums to reckon with where some of their money comes from.

“The museum takes a position of gratitude and respect to those who support us, but 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,” said Daniel H. Weiss, the president of the Met. “That is what we’re doing here.”

The increased scrutiny on donors is forcing museums to navigate moral dilemmas and a political climate where a protest can go viral in a matter of hours. At the same time, they must mollify the wealthy benefactors who help keep the lights on and would rather not see their donations open them up to public examination.

“There really aren’t that many people who are giving to art and giving to museums, in fact it’s a very small club,” said Tom Eccles, the executive director of the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College. “So we have to be a little careful what we wish for here.”

There is also the difficult question of where to draw a line. What sort of behavior is inexcusable?

“We are not a partisan organization, we are not a political organization, so we don’t have a litmus test for whom we take gifts from based on policies or politics,” said Mr. Weiss of the Met. “If there are people who want to support us, for the most part we are delighted.”

“We would only not accept gifts from people if it in some way challenges or is counter to the core mission of the institution, in exceptional cases,” he added. “The OxyContin crisis in this country is a legitimate and full-blown crisis.”

Three brothers, Arthur, Mortimer and Raymond Sackler, bought a small company called Purdue Frederick in 1952 and transformed it into the pharmaceutical giant it is today. In 1996, Purdue Pharma put the opioid painkiller OxyContin on the market, fundamentally altering the company’s fortunes.

The family’s role in the marketing of OxyContin, and in the opioid crisis, has come under increased scrutiny in recent years. Documents submitted this year as part of litigation by the attorney general of Massachusetts allege that members of the Sackler family directed the company’s efforts to mislead the public about the dangers of the highly addictive drug. The company has denied the allegations and said it “neither created nor caused the opioid epidemic.”

Arthur Sackler died before OxyContin’s creation and his side of the family, which has supported institutions including the Smithsonian and the Brooklyn Museum, sold his stake in the pharmaceutical business after his death. One of his children, Elizabeth A. Sackler, has called the company’s role in the opioid epidemic “morally abhorrent.”

Mr. Weiss, who described the Met’s decision as a “suspension,” said the museum would refuse only gifts from members of the Sackler family closely connected to Purdue. Several family members, or their charities, have given to the museum in recent years, including the Mortimer D. Sackler Foundation, which has donated at least $200,000 since 2012.

That is a relatively small amount for a museum with a $320 million annual budget, but the symbolism of the Met’s decision was unmistakable.

The family’s contributions to the Met go back some 50 years. A 1978 news release announcing the dedication of the Sackler Wing said it cost $9.5 million to build — about $36 million in today’s dollars — and called the Sacklers “major donors” to the project. At the dedication reception, which was jointly hosted by the Met and the three brothers, the Martha Graham Dance Company performed a new work at the Temple of Dendur, which was a gift from Egypt to the United States.

Nan Goldin, a photographer who overcame an OxyContin addiction, has led demonstrations at institutions that receive Sackler money; in March 2018, she and her supporters dumped empty pill bottles in the Sackler Wing’s reflecting pool.

“We commend the Met for making the ethical, moral decision to refuse future funding from the Sacklers,” a group started by Ms. Goldin, Prescription Addiction Intervention Now, or PAIN, said in a statement. “Fourteen months after staging our first protest there, we’re gratified to know that our voices have been heard.”

The group also called for the removal of the Sackler name from buildings the family has bankrolled. Mr. Weiss said that the museum would not take the more drastic step of taking the family’s name off the wing, saying that it was not in a position to make permanent changes while litigation against the family was pending and information was still coming to light.

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