Earlier today, the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced that they will be removing the Sackler name from seven of their exhibition spaces, including the famous wing that hosts the ancient Egyptian Temple of Dendur. It marks the latest development in the fallout from the Sacklers’ alleged role in the opioid crisis through the development and controversial marketing of OxyContin at their company Purdue Pharma, and is the product of many years of activism around the cause—perhaps most famously on the part of the celebrated photographer Nan Goldin, herself a recovering addict, who staged a protest in the Met’s formerly-titled Sackler Wing in 2018 with her advocacy organization P.A.I.N.
“Our families have always strongly supported the Met, and we believe this to be in the best interest of the museum and the important mission that it serves,” the descendants of Dr. Mortimer Sackler and Dr. Raymond Sackler said in a statement today. “The earliest of these gifts were made almost 50 years ago, and now we are passing the torch to others who might wish to step forward to support the museum.”
The announcement follows the museum’s decision in 2019 that it would no longer accept funding from the family, which had previously been a major benefactor. The Sacklers’ ties to cultural institutions have long proved a source of controversy, with many other major museums severing ties with the family in recent years. The first prominent example came in 2019 after Goldin refused to participate in a retrospective at London’s National Portrait Gallery unless they agreed to refuse a £1 million donation from the family; the Gallery then turned down the donation. That same year, a number of other institutions, including the Tate Galleries in the U.K. and the Guggenheim Museum in New York, announced they would be rejecting funding, while the Louvre in Paris and London’s Serpentine Galleries announced they would be scrubbing the family’s name from their walls in 2019 and 2021 respectively.
The controversy lies in the Sackler family’s alleged links to the opioid crisis, currently the subject of multiple ongoing lawsuits, and which has drawn more intense scrutiny due to both the efforts of activists and through a number of high-profile media offerings, including Patrick Radden Keefe’s book Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty published in April of this year, HBO’s two-part documentary The Crime of the Century, and Hulu’s recent series Dopesick starring Michael Keaton. Having touted OxyContin, an opioid painkiller, as largely without a risk of addiction, Purdue Pharma reportedly generated over $35 billion in revenue from the drug, helping to make the Sacklers one of the wealthiest families in America. The opioid crisis is estimated to have caused over 700,000 deaths, with many millions of people still suffering from an opioid use disorder as a result. Between May 2020 and April 2021, more people died from an opioid overdose in America than in any other 12 month period.
Today’s announcement marks an important shift in the conversation around removing the Sackler name from cultural institutions—where the Met goes, many others will likely follow. To see the family’s name no longer venerated in the most hallowed halls of cultural power represents a significant step forward for many Americans.