US art photographer and activist Nan Goldin has declared she will refuse a prestigious retrospective of her work at Britain’s National Portrait Gallery if it accepts a gift of £1 million from a branch of the multibillionaire Sackler family made wealthy by addictive prescription painkillers.
Goldin is threatening to boycott the gallery if it accepts the donation from the owners of the American pharmaceutical company that makes OxyContin, the Observer has learned.
“I will not do the show,” Goldin told the Observer this weekend. “I have been invited to have a retrospective at the National Portrait Gallery and I have told them I would not do it if they take the Sackler money.”
The artist last weekend staged a major protest at the Guggenheim Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York over their links to the large family of arts philanthropists, one group of which profits from the ongoing opioid crisis in the US. “My message is for all institutions everywhere, which are taking Sackler money,” said Goldin, 65. “They are not going [to be able to] continue to operate ‘business as usual’. People are pushing back and, if they want to maintain their standing as cultural institutions and educational institutions, they have to listen to the people and they have to do the right thing. They have to make a decision.”
The Sackler name is prominently displayed among key donors at many British arts institutions and has been behind hefty financial support for many more. From the Royal Opera House, National Gallery, National Theatre, Shakespeare’s Globe, the Royal Ballet School, Tate, Old Vic and the Royal College of Art, to smaller institutions, such as the Serpentine, Royal Court, Museum of London, Dulwich Picture Gallery, Design Museum, the Courtauld and the Roundhouse venue.
Last summer the V&A Museum unveiled an extensive £2m entrance courtyard named after the donors. The three Sackler brothers who made the family fortune, Arthur, Mortimer and Raymond, are dead, and some of their descendants have spoken out against the trade in opioids still plied by part of the family.
Arthur’s daughter, Elizabeth Sackler, has said her side of the family has never benefited from “morally abhorrent” sales of OxyContin, a drug brought out after her father’s death in 1987 and made by the US company Purdue Pharma, which was by then wholly owned by his brothers Mortimer and Raymond.
In 2007, Purdue Pharma was fined in the US for marketing OxyContin “with intent to defraud or mislead” regulators. Recent lawsuits have also named members of the family that benefit from the pharmaceutical company. In America the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that so far this century about 400,000 people have died of overdoses in which prescription or illicit opioids were implicated.
Goldin, who came to fame with her 1986 book and photo-show, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, said she had talked to Nicholas Cullinan, director of the National Portrait Gallery, by phone last week. “He acknowledged they are in discussion [about the donation] and there will be a final decision in March,” she said, praising Cullinan for addressing the issue. “I was very surprised at his openness. I really feel it’s so important museums listen to their artists, rather than their philanthropists. What is the museum for? Art is transcendent and that makes it very, very dirty if they take the money; it’s failing the whole idea of a museum as a place to show art.
A spokesperson from the gallery said: “The gallery is in regular contact with a range of artists about potential future displays and exhibitions, including Nan Goldin, and it wouldn’t be appropriate for us to comment on projects which are still being discussed. The grant pledged by the Sackler Trust is going through our internal review process in line with our ethical fundraising policy and charitable objectives.”
Goldin began her campaign against the Sacklers after recovering from an addiction to powerful prescription painkillers. In 2014 she was prescribed OxyContin for tendonitis in her left wrist. She now demands that arts institutions in America and Britain refuse further Sackler donations and argues the family should instead start paying for treatment and rehabilitation for opioid addicts.
Representatives of Mortimer’s, the London-based branch of the family, oversee the Sackler Trust and the Dr Mortimer and Theresa Sackler Foundation and have made grants amounting to £80m. Goldin said if other institutions where her work is displayed continue to take Sackler money she will plan “some kind of intervention”.
This weekend a V&A spokesperson said: “We are grateful for the generosity of donors who make charitable donations to support our public programme, help care for the collection and invest in our facilities. All donations are reviewed against the V&A’s gift-acceptance policy, which includes due diligence procedures, considers reputations risk, and outlines best practice within the sector. This policy is reviewed on an annual basis by our senior management team and board of trustees.”
• This article was amended on 18 February 2019 to align more closely the first sentence with the headline.