Pressure on National Portrait Gallery over £1m gift linked to drug crisis

British institutions face questions over donations from Sackler family

The National Portrait Gallery is facing scrutiny over a proposed £1m donation from the Sackler family following allegations that the American dynasty’s fortune is tainted by the US opioid crisis.

The gallery is one of a number of British cultural and academic institutions in line for substantial donations from members of the Sackler family, which is locked in a growing controversy over its connection to one of the worst drug crises in US history.

Despite questions over the nature of the family’s philanthropy, institutions including the Courtauld Institute of Art and the University of Edinburgh are in line for significant donations this year, records obtained by the Guardian show.

The National Portrait Gallery is currently reviewing the £1m pledge, which was made in 2016, in line with its ethical fundraising policy. It said no money had yet been received and the review was usual practice for significant donations.

Critics say donations from the Sackler family should be considered unacceptable. “The millions the Sacklers donate to philanthropic and art organisations are blood money, plain and simple,” said Ryan Hampton, an opioid addiction campaigner. He called the family’s donations to arts institutions “reputation laundering”.

The Sackler family, some of whom are based in London, owe much of their wealth to OxyContin, the prescription painkiller first launched in 1996. The drug is made by Purdue Pharma, which is wholly owned by the Sackler family. It has been linked to the opioid crisis now killing more than 100 people a day in the US and spawning millions of addicts.

In 2007 Purdue was fined more than $600m (£430m) in the US for misleading regulators, doctors and patients about the drug’s risk of addiction and its potential for abuse. A wave of fresh legal action is now under way, which the company is contesting.

Bodies such as the National Portrait Gallery and Old Vic theatre have collectively received more than £50m over the past few years in donations from the charitable arms of the family, who are ranked as the 19th richest in the US by Forbes and have long wielded philanthropic clout on both sides of the Atlantic.

Records obtained by the Guardian show that donations this year are set to include £200,000 for a “research forum” at the Courtauld Institute, £250,000 for the University of Edinburgh and £150,000 for the Sackler Institute of Psychobiological Research at the University of Glasgow.

The donations are from the Sackler Trust – a UK-registered body whose directors include Dame Theresa Sackler. She was the third wife of Mortimer Sackler, a former chief executive of Purdue Pharma and a director of the trust, who died in 2010. Three of his seven children are also trust members.

The National Portrait Gallery said the trust had pledged £1m in June 2016 but that no funds had been received as the grant was still going through the gallery’s internal review process in line with its ethical fundraising policy and charitable objectives.

A version of the policy issued in 2015 and made public last year after a freedom of information request says the gallery reserves the right to reject support deemed to be “in conflict with the objectives and values of the gallery”. It adds: “The gallery is mindful of the risk involved in accepting support or continuing negotiations which may cause significant potential damage to the gallery’s reputation.”

London’s Victoria and Albert Museum said it had received funding from the Sackler Trust and the Dr Mortimer and Theresa Sackler Foundation during 2016 and 2017, which had gone towards the Exhibition Road Quarter project, learning activities and acquisitions.

However, the V&A refused to reveal how much money was involved, saying: “Major donors to the V&A generally expect the value of their gifts to the museum to be treated confidentially, and the release of such information, contrary to the stated wishes of a donor, would discourage future gifts from these and other donors.”

The Tate – for which there are no proposed donations from the Sacklers at the moment – said it had received £1m from the Sackler Trust in the financial year 2015-16, which went towards the Tate Modern Capital Project. It received £14,000 from Theresa Sackler as payment for 2016 and 2017 membership of Tate’s international council. Contributions go towards its programmes and acquisitions.

Outside of the arts, the Sacklers’ largesse in supporting medical research and development has been particularly substantial. The University of Sussex said it received just under £2.4m in eight instalments between 2009 and 2017 to fund the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science. Moorfields Eye Charity in London said that in 2017 it accepted a pledge of £3m from the Sackler Trust to support Moorfields eye hospital as part of moves towards providing “a new world-leading eye centre to deliver clinical care, education and research”.

That such donations are highly valuable is not in doubt. But campaigners in the US are particularly angry about the Sackler funding in the arts world, where galleries from New York to London bear the family name.

Pieces from a Rodin exhibition at the Courtauld Institute last year. It is due to receive £200,000 from the Sackler Trust this year.
Rodin exhibition at the Courtauld Institute last year. It is due to receive £200,000 from the Sackler Trust this year. Photograph: Guy Bell/Rex/Shutterstock

Ryan Hampton worked at the White House under Bill Clinton and is now in recovery from a decade-long opioid addiction. He campaigns on the issue and said funding from the Sacklers was tainted.

“The millions the Sacklers donate to philanthropic and art organisations are blood money, plain and simple. When you stand in the Sackler Gallery, you’re standing on a pile of corpses,” he told the Guardian.

“I find it hard to believe that any museum board member whose family has battled an opioid addiction would be comfortable at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a wing funded by the Sackler family. It turns my stomach.

“The only appropriate place for Sackler family money or Purdue corporation funds is in a massive settlement fund controlled by the US courts to treat those still suffering with the addiction caused by their opioids. That money should be used to right the wrongs in a way that is transparent. Donations to arts organisations are reputation laundering, and a distraction from the wreckage of this family’s greed.”

In the UK, the Sacklers have engaged a public relations company specialising in reputation management. It contacted the Guardian after several institutions informed the family that the Guardian had made a number of requests under the Freedom of Information Act.

A spokesperson for the Sackler Trust said: “Sackler family members have a 30-year history of supporting causes in the UK, including medical science, mental health, access to education, arts institutions and community organisations. The trust’s ongoing philanthropy continues this legacy and it is a privilege for us to be able to support organisations that have a positive impact.”


Ben Quinn

The GuardianTramp

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