Just days after Lonnie G. Bunch III took over as secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, he’d already received a major request concerning the ongoing issues surrounding the Sackler family, their philanthropic giving, and their potential involvement with the opioid crisis. In a letter, US Senator Jeffrey A. Merkley, a democratic representative of Oregon, suggested that the Smithsonian remove the Sackler name from one of their most prominent galleries: the Sackler Gallery.
The letter in part reads:
…While the Sackler family has provided philanthropic support to several major cultural institutions around the world, including the Smithsonian’s Sackler Gallery of Art, the Sackler family hooked thousands of Americans on OxyContin through aggressive and misleading marketing tactics and profited from one of the deadliest health crises in our country.
The Sackler name has no place in taxpayer-funded public institutions, such as the Freer-Sackler Gallery, and I ask that you remove the name from the gallery.
In 1987, the Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian was opened to accommodate the donations (totally about $50 million) made by Arthur Sackler around 1983. Arthur, who also donated about $4 million to the construction of the gallery, died only months before the building was realized. Four years after his death, his brothers, Raymond and Mortimer, founded Purdue Pharma, the pharmaceutical company that created and promoted OxyContin, a highly addictive opioid that has created a massive crisis in the US, among other places. Today, members of the Sackler family, primarily the descendants of Raymond and Mortimer, have been named in more than 1,500 lawsuits concerning OxyContin and their role in promoting the drug, which is referenced in Merkley’s letter as well. However, doubt has been cast over the entire family and it has extended to the donations they have given in the past and tried to give more recently.
The opioid crisis coupled with the donations made by the Sackler family have brought museums around the world under fire, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim, London’s National Portrait Gallery, and the Tate Galleries. Activists, most prominently P.A.I.N. led by artist Nan Goldin, have held demonstrations calling on museum to refuse donations from the family and to strike the Sackler name from galleries. In March the National Portrait Gallery in London was among some of the first to turn down donations from a Sackler family member and before that, the Met vowed to reevaluate their donation vetting process.
Senator Merkley’s letter is among the most recent call for change at museums. His motion comes after he introduced a bill, titled the Opioid Treatment Surge Act, earlier in the month that would provide support for those dealing with substance abuse. If passed, the bill would pump $2 billion into substance abuse treatment that would benefit every state and US territory.
The Smithsonian, which previously stated that it did not plan to remove the Sackler name, has yet to address the letter but is expected to later today.