The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is dropping the Sackler name from its building. The move is perhaps the museum world’s most prominent cutting of ties with the disgraced family since the Sacklers’ guilty plea to criminal charges connected to their company Purdue Pharma’s marketing of addictive painkiller OxyContin in 2019. The decision, which came after more than a yearlong review by the museum, had the blessing of the Sacklers themselves.
“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 Mortimer Sackler and Raymond Sackler said in a statement. “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 decision was reportedly mutual and made “in order to allow the Met to further its core mission,” according to a joint statement issued by the family and the museum. But institutions have faced increasing pressure to sever relations with the Sacklers in recent years as part of a growing push to hold institutions and other cultural groups accountable over where their money is coming from. (Other donors that have come under fire include arms dealers and oil companies.)
There are currently seven spaces at the Fifth Avenue flagship that bear the Sackler name. The biggest is the Sackler Wing, which opened in 1978, and includes the Sackler Gallery for Egyptian Art, the Temple of Dendur in the Sackler Wing, and the 1987 addition of the Sackler Wing Galleries.
Nan Goldin speaking at the protest at the Met last summer. Photo: Michael Quinn.
Efforts to strip the Sacklers of the soft power afforded by their philanthropic giving have been led by artist Nan Goldin’s advocacy organization Sackler P.A.I.N., which she founded after overcoming her own painkiller addiction.
The group has staged highly visible protests at institutions including the Met as well as the Louvre in Paris, which quietly removed the Sackler name from both its wing of Oriental antiquities and website in 2019, and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, which is still home the Sackler Center for Arts Education.
“We’re so happy that the Met has listened to P.A.I.N. and to their own moral conscious,” Goldin and P.A.I.N. told Artnet News in a statement. “We’re grateful to the Met for leading the charge and wait for all of the other museums who bear their name to follow suit.”
The survivors of OxyContin addition and their families, as well as institutions, had hoped that the family’s $4.5 billion settlement would include provisions that would allow nonprofits to terminate naming agreements with the Sacklers. That didn’t make it into the final terms of the settlement, which means the Sacklers and the Met had to reach some sort of behind-the-scenes agreement for their name to come down.
“The Met has been built by the philanthropy of generations of donors—and the Sacklers have been among our most generous supporters,” Dan Weiss, the Met’s president and chief executive officer, said in a statement. “This gracious gesture by the Sacklers aids the museum in continuing to serve this and future generations. We greatly appreciate it.”
As part of the settlement, the Sacklers have a nine-year ban on any new naming rights for their charitable donations.
The Serpentine Sackler at its opening in 2013. Photo ©Luke Hayes, courtesy of the Serpentine Galleries.
The Met was already among a number of museums that had begun to reject Sackler donations. London’s National Portrait Gallery turned down a $1.3 million gift in 2019, after Goldin threatened to cancel a planned exhibition there. The South London Gallery, the Tate Modern in London, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Jewish Museum Berlin have all pledged not to take the family’s money.
There are three branches of the Sackler family, descended from brothers Mortimer, Raymond, and Arthur Sackler. When Arthur died in 1987, before the invention of OxyContin, his brother purchased his one-third share in their company Purdue Pharma. (Arthur and his immediate family didn’t directly benefit from the drug, and their namesake spaces, including the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum and the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C., have not been the subject of protests.)
Despite advocacy from Goldin and others, the Sackler name as related to Mortimer and Raymond retains a place of pride at numerous institutions, such as the Natural History Museum’s Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics and Sackler Educational Laboratory.
In London, the British Museum has the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Rooms; the Victoria and Albert Museum has the Sackler Courtyard; the National Gallery has the Sackler Room; and the Tate Modern has the Sackler Escalator. And while the Serpentine Galleries has taken the Sackler name off its website, the north gallery is still identified as the Serpentine Sackler on its facade.
The Met stands to serve as a powerful example for other institutions considering dropping the family name, given its prominence at the museum. In addition to the Sackler Wing, the museum’s display of ancient Near Eastern art has had the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery for Assyrian Art and the Richard and Jonathan Sackler Study Center since 1981, while the European paintings section has been home to the Dr. Mortimer D. Sackler and Theresa Sackler Gallery since 1986.
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