In October 2017, Esquire and the New Yorker published penetrating articles linking the Sackler family, known to most as patrons of the arts, with the growing opioid crisis in America. The unsympathetic accounts described a family whose empire was built on the aggressive marketing of painkillers, particularly OxyContin; a family that has for decades gone out of their way to keep their name separate from the drug company, Purdue Pharma, and associated activities from which they derived their wealth.
These revelations should have rocked the art world. The Sackler name is plastered on art institutions and universities across the globe. Would the family’s ties to the opioid epidemic be a new rallying cry in institutional critique?
Hardly. At least not yet. The articles, predated by a 2015 Forbes report on the U.S.’s richest families and a 2011 piece in Fortune, came and went with few ripples on the art front until January when Artforum published a personal account by photographer Nan Goldin. The essay divulges her years-long addiction to OxyContin and hard-fought recovery, concluding with the announcement of P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now), a group and petition organized to hold the Sackler family accountable for their role in the opioid crisis.
Goldin has been widely commended for her initiative, most recently by philanthropist Elizabeth Sackler herself, who offered solidarity and support. “I admire Nan Goldin’s commitment to take action and her courage to tell her story,” she told Hyperallergic in a statement last month. “I stand in solidarity with artists and thinkers whose work and voices must be heard.”
What sounds like an opportunity to make amends, however, quickly shifts gears when Sackler denies her father’s, and by extension her own, culpability in the opioid epidemic: “My father, Arthur M. Sackler, died in 1987, before OxyContin existed and his one-third option in Purdue Frederick was sold by his estate to his brothers a few months later.”
It’s true that Elizabeth Sackler’s branch of the family does not currently benefit from Purdue Pharma, and they are, as Esquire describes them, “mere multi-millionaires” to their billionaire cousins. What she leaves out of this refutation, however, is the fact that her inherited wealth stems from something equally sinister.
Valium advertisement, 1971
Drug Addiction Is a Feminist Issue
Arthur Sackler’s work in drug advertising ultimately paved the way for a groundbreaking painkiller to become a deadly epidemic. He was not a drug developer, but a peddler, responsible for developing and establishing norms for some of the most unethical and predatory practices in drug marketing today, like marketing directly to physicians. Arthur, a psychiatrist, got rich promoting the tranquilizers Librium and Valium during the sixties, largely as an addictive panacea for shifts in gender relations. “Most of the questionable practices that propelled the pharmaceutical industry into the scourge it is today can be attributed to Arthur Sackler,” proposes Allen Frances, former chair of psychiatry at Duke University School of Medicine in the New Yorker exposé. Speaking about Elizabeth Sackler’s statement, Goldin told the Guardian recently, “She’s not off the hook.”
Drug addiction—particularly to prescription painkillers and tranquilizers—has long been a feminist issue. Women have been liberally fed pills for their anxiety, depression, and pain for over a century. At one point, the former First Lady of the United States, Betty Ford, undertook addiction treatment for, among other things, tranquilizer abuse. Librium and Valium “were unabashedly promoted as wonder drugs that could be used to help manage an enormous range of life problems, ranging from tension, nerves, and irritability to menopause, juvenile delinquency, family and marital difficulties, and problems at work.” Arthur Sackler’s advancement of these tranquilizers as a means of maintaining patriarchal harmony in the modern home cost how many women’s lives? These drugs’ commercial success (Valium was the first $100 million drug in the U.S.) shaped the aggressive marketing template replicated by drug companies to this very day. It is the greatest irony that fifty years after feminists united against Valium (which they were prescribed twice as often as men), the grand matron of feminist art’s wealth comes from the marketing of that very drug. No, it’s not OxyContin, but it’s not irrelevant either.
Valium advertisement, 1970
Elizabeth Sackler’s shallow display of solidarity and denial of culpability raises thorny questions that implicate not only her family, but all of us: Who is to blame in a problem as intricate and diffuse as the opioid epidemic: the drug makers or the hustlers? Are inheritors responsible for their parents’ sins? Can “solidarity” exist without remorse? What do we want to know about the money undergirding our art institutions? Are we, as makers, consumers, and lovers of art, also “not off the hook”?
Our Problematic Faves
One of the most troubling outcomes of Sackler’s solidarity statement is how quickly the art world appeared to breath a sigh of relief. In comments across social media people seemed thankful that they didn’t have to address their discomfort over a beloved scholar and benefactor’s relationship to a deadly epidemic. People seem not only ready and willing, but grateful to be able to give Elizabeth Sackler a pass. She’s largely been taken at her word, a luxury we are more than happy to afford this rich woman rather than confront our own uneasy feelings about enjoying the fruits of her wealth.
In the wake of Goldin’s Artforum essay, Hyperallergic published a list of institutions funded by the Sacklers. However, satisfied by a promissory note documenting the sale of Arthur Sackler’s Purdue Frederick stock options to his brothers, Mortimer and Raymond, Hyperallergic removed all institutions that received donations by Elizabeth and Arthur Sackler from their list. There was no interrogation of the money those institutions were funded with.
This artnet op-ed even better describes the mental gymnastics some are taking to ignore the truth about their problematic faves. Natalie Frank, an artist and member of the Council for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, makes the argument that we shouldn’t implicate Arthur or Elizabeth Sackler because it “jeopardizes their legacies.” The Sackler Center’s “mission is important,” Frank urges, going on to praise the museum’s pivotal exhibitions and Elizabeth Sackler’s unapologetic use of the word “feminist.”
So, Can I Still Go to My Favorite Museum?
Good deeds do not cancel out bad ones, but do bad ones discredit the good? It’s not a zero sum game. The Sacklers can do tremendous things for the arts and have skeletons in their closets. But let’s confront that dynamic at least, not let Sackler and her representatives take control of the narrative. The editorial board of the Harvard Crimson penned a piece last month urging the University to investigate the intricacies of the Sackler family, “its finances, ethics, and societal influence,” and consider severing ties with the extended family (including the descendants of Arthur). We must ask the same of our institutions, however uncomfortable that makes us.
The Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum has done incredible work in exhibitions and programming to honor women and their artwork. Sackler herself is lauded as a prominent feminist cultural historian and philanthropist. But it is the worst face of white feminism to fight for your right to oppress others while simultaneously denying the harm you are doing. It’s clear that the art world wants her money; but you know who else could use that money? Prescription drug and heroin addicts, needle exchange programs, rehabilitation centers, education programs.
To make those sort of amends would be tantamount to admitting guilt, however, and the descendants of Arthur Sackler appear unready to confront the dark side of their privilege. It’s much easier to condemn others (one’s own family, even!), than to try to make things right in any meaningful way. And that extends to us, the artists and writers and art lovers who benefit from cultural philanthropy. Drug overdoses are currently the leading cause of death for Americans under 50, taking some 115 lives a day. Sure, we’d rather enjoy our museums without thinking about death and suffering, but we must examine the connection, even if we can’t agree on an easy solution.
Being an ethical human being is hard. We all draw our own lines of acceptability, and we get it wrong, constantly. What we must not do is turn a blind eye to avoid the uncomfortable work of drawing those lines. You can enjoy the Met, or the Brooklyn Museum, or the Serpentine Sackler, and still demand they do better—whether you want them to investigate the connections between their donors and the opioid crisis; fully divest themselves of drug-related money; rename their rooms, and escalators, and institutes; sponsor educational programming related to opioid addiction; host fundraisers or give something back to affected communities across the nation.
From Dirty Money, Restitution
Can ill-gotten money ever be disconnected from its source? This is a perennial question. It pops back into our consciousness every time we are reminded of the ties between capitalism and the arts: when a performance space in Lincoln Center is renamed after a Koch brother, when a company running asylum seeker detention centers sponsors a biennial, when our museums are “battlefields” bankrolled by weapons manufacturers. Our billionaire arts benefactors have political points-of-view, naturally, and their money comes from industries we may not always be comfortable with. Allow me this brief, but important tangent: As long as our arts institutions have little or no public funding, we will continue to confront these unsettling questions. Can we envision a system that doesn’t rely on the obscenely wealthy using arts as a rebranding strategy? A system where institutions are accountable not to trustees and tourists, but their local constituents? A system that truly believes the arts are in the public interest?
Descendents are not inherently guilty of their ancestors’ misdeeds but, in some cases, they do benefit from them. Elizabeth Sackler has done admirable philanthropic work in the arts but her wealth originated in the drug-based maintenance of patriarchal norms. Does the permanent installation of Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party absolve her? No. When stories about her family’s connections to the opioid epidemic began to circulate, she could have said nothing, simply maintaining a status quo that has long worked in her favor. But her denial of the ways her privilege stems from the death and suffering of others, those in poverty and pain, belies her message. It marks her statement as the hollow virtue signaling it is. We must not reward her for that.
On Thursday, Elizabeth Sackler responded in Artforum to Nan Goldin’s petition. Instead of using this platform to outline the shape her solidarity would take, she took the opportunity to reiterate her innocence. Much more interesting was Goldin’s response, published beneath Sackler’s statement, welcoming Sackler as an ally and detailing tangible ways her family’s wealth and influence can stem the tide of the opioid crisis. Elizabeth Sackler can stand in true solidarity with survivors and victims by using her money and the goodwill she clearly has in the arts community to fund addiction treatment and education. She must encourage her extended family to do the same. Real solidarity begins with restitution.
Andrea Alessi is the Managing Editor of ArtSlant.
(Image at top: Valium advertisement, 1970)
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