V&A drops financial ties with Sackler family over links with opioids

London museum bows to years of pressure and removes signs bearing name of family associated with OxyContin crisis

The Victoria and Albert Museum has bowed to growing pressure to rename key areas of its Kensington site, the Observer has learned, as it drops controversial ties with the Sackler family, benefactors descended from the American makers of addictive opioid prescription drugs.

This weekend the signs that directed V&A visitors to the Sackler Centre for Arts Education, and to the £2m tiled “Sackler Courtyard” on Exhibition Road, have gone, as the museum finally jettisons its damaging association with the opioid drug market.

The move marks another victory for the campaign group Sackler Pain, which staged a dramatic public protest at the gallery in November 2019.

The group, led by the American artist Nan Goldin, argued that donations from members of the family that founded the now bankrupt Purdue Pharma, makers of the addictive OxyContin painkiller, were a stain on those cultural institutions that accepted them.

The V&A follows the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery and the British Museum as cultural organisations which have removed the Sackler name from prominent wings and galleries that were built with financial support from family members or their charitable foundations.

A visitor looks at a cast of David by Michelangelo in the Weston Cast Court in the V&A.
A visitor looks at a cast of David by Michelangelo in the Weston Cast Court in the V&A. Photograph: Alamy

The museum’s decision was taken in agreement with the family of the late Dr Mortimer D Sackler. No new name has yet been chosen for either the courtyard or the education centre.

A museum spokesperson said: “The V&A and the family of the late Dr Mortimer D Sackler have mutually agreed the V&A’s Centre for Arts Education and its Exhibition Road courtyard will no longer carry the Sackler name.

“Dame Theresa Sackler was a trustee of the V&A between 2011 and 2019, and we are immensely grateful for her service to the V&A over the years. We have no current plans to rename the spaces.”

The V&A’s decision was made early in the summer and, while most of the signs have disappeared, a few less-prominent ones will stay until work is completed.

But campaigners’ jubilation will not disguise the sadness of the story. The worlds of medical research and cultural philanthropy, such potentially positive forces, have both been tarnished by a public health scandal that has devastated thousands of lives across north America.

“We all choose our fight and this is mine,” Goldin told the Observer three years ago, as she led a group of 30 demonstrators in placing bottles of pills and red-stained “Oxy dollar” bills on the V&A courtyard’s tiled floor.

The group then staged a “die-in”, lying down to represent the 400,000 worldwide deaths they blame on opioid dependency. The protest, similar to events staged in New York, was part of efforts to stop British and US cultural organisations accepting donations and sponsorship from the family.

On hearing the news, Goldin said: “It’s amazing. I was shocked when I heard it. The V&A has been the last bastion of holdouts in terms of those supporting the Sacklers.

“It’s a big victory for people who go to museums and do not want to see the name of the family who helped ignite the overdose crisis.”

She said she believes her campaign, launched in the US in 2017, “started the conversation” about tainted philanthropy from the family. Goldin said the museums did not respond. “And in four years we managed to make our influence felt and our goal has been met.”

Goldin’s group claims the original marketing of OxyContin misled victims because it did not warn of its addictive properties. Purdue Pharma, set up by the late brothers Mortimer and Raymond Sackler, started selling OxyContin in 1996. Their other brother, Arthur, died in 1987.

Some Sackler descendants did speak out against the trade in opioids. The branch of the family descended from Arthur have also said their charitable donations were not funded from OxyContin sales.

But public pressure to distance themselves from the family caused trustees to look again at their wealthy donors. The V&A said this weekend its policies on financial support, which they regard as rigorous, are unchanged.

“All donations are reviewed against the V&A’s gift acceptance policy, which includes due diligence procedures, considers reputational risk, and outlines best practice within the sector,” the spokesperson said.

In 2019 the Louvre museum in Paris removed the Sackler name from its oriental antiquities wing and later, after 14 months of debate, Manhattan’s Metropolitan Museum of Art also dropped the name.

In Britain, the National Portrait Gallery became the first major art institution to turn down a Sackler grant. This March, the British Museum renamed all galleries and endowments that carried the names of Raymond and Beverly Sackler, who donated to the institution between the 1990s and 2013.

Ending the link with the Sacklers after 30 years would “move the museum into a new era”, said George Osborne, the chairman of the museum and former chancellor of the exchequer.

Goldin, known for her 1986 book and photography show The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, began a string of colourful protests as she recovered from her own addiction to OxyContin, prescribed in 2014 for tendinitis in her wrist.

Laura Poitras’s documentary All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, which won the top prize at the Venice film festival last month, follows Goldin’s struggle and has also done much to expose the impact of the opioid business. Further attention was drawn to the cause by acclaimed 2021 book Empire of Pain, by Patrick Radden Keefe.

Purdue Pharma was declared bankrupt three years ago. A legal agreement, with a promised payout of about $6bn (£5.4bn) to OxyContin’s US victims, is still being negotiated.

A number of leading institutions still display the Sackler name, including Harvard University, which has an Arthur M Sackler museum.


Vanessa Thorpe and Joanna Walters

The GuardianTramp

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