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In A First, A Major Museum Turns Down A Gift From The Sackler Family

In a landmark move, London’s National Portrait Gallery has decided not to take money from the Sackler family — at least for now.

The gallery and the Sackler Trust jointly announced Tuesday that a £1 million gift the Sacklers awarded the museum in 2016 for the development of the museum’s £35.5m “Inspiring People” project would not be used, the Art Newspaper reported.

The decision to not move ahead with the grant comes amid mounting scrutiny of and several lawsuits aimed at the Sacklers, the owners of Purdue Pharma, which manufactures the opioid OxyContin. The Sacklers are major donors to arts institutions across the world, including the Metropolitan Museum, the Guggenheim and the Louvre. Their generosity, though it predates the invention of OxyContin in the 1990s, has drawn accusations that the family has used philanthropic efforts to mask their alleged role in the opioid epidemic.

The Sackler donation was initially placed on hold, as the particular project is still in developmental stages and the gallery wanted to vet the accusations surrounding the family trust.

As the Art Newspaper reported, the gallery’s development team prepared a report on the Sackler Trust grant that was submitted to the gallery’s ethics committee in February. Other art institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, at which the Sacklers endowed a wing that houses the Egyptian Temple of Dendur, have announced plans to review donor policies in light of the Sackler lawsuits. The National Portrait Gallery’s rejection of the donation takes things a step further, ranking public pressure and questions of ethics as more significant than a sizable financial gift.

In a statement, the Sackler Trust said they were pleased to have offered support to the gallery, adding “the giving philosophy of the family has always been to actively support institutions while never getting in the way of their mission”.

The trust also acknowledged in its statement that “recent reporting of allegations made against Sackler family members may cause this new donation to deflect the National Portrait Gallery from its important work.” It also stated “allegations against family members are vigorously denied.”

Members of the Sackler family are currently subject to lawsuits in New York and Massachusetts. The New York Times reported that the Massachusetts court filing documents claimed that Richard Sackler, the former chairman of Purdue Pharma, urged sales reps to encourage doctors to overprescribe OxyContin. The lawsuits additionally allege that the Sacklers devised a strategy to blame the opioid crisis on addicts, citing, for example, a 2001 email in which Richard Sackler wrote “We have to hammer on abusers in every way possible… They are the culprits and the problem. They are reckless criminals.”

The Art Newspaper reports that last month the photographer Nan Goldin, whose activist group P.A.I.N. Sackler has been protesting the Sacklers at art institutions like the Guggenheim and Met, told the National Portrait Gallery she would withdraw her work from a proposed exhibition if the gallery agreed to accept the Sackler Trust donation.

After the ethics committee convened in late February it communicated misgivings to the Sackler Trust. The gallery and the trust jointly agreed to walk away from the grant. Trustees were informed March 13.

“I acknowledge the generosity of the Sackler Family and their support of the Arts over the years,” David Ross, the National Portrait Gallery chairman, told the Art Newspaper. “We understand and support their decision not to proceed at this time with the donation to the Gallery.”

PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture intern. He can be reached at [email protected]

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