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The End of Big Pharma Philanthropy at the V&A

Updated: Feb 16, 2023

What if I told you that the bloodshed of America's infamous, big-Pharma-funded war on drugs has benefitted --of all things --the arts?
"In The Trap" wearable sculpture by Kristin Fiorvanti (2022): cardboard, plastic, fabric, newspaper, insulation and thread

Art Business: Lux Gateway to Laundering


Beginning their manufacture and sale of Oxycontin in 1996, the Sackler family single-handedly intensified the war on drugs. Purdue Pharma (known in Europe as Mundipharma), produced ghastly, misleading advertisements to market its new drug to the masses as a miracle cure-all for pain. The introduction of Oxycontin crippled our youngest generations in America, creating an over-the-counter gateway to heroin: resulting in a crisis that we, especially in my home state of West Virginia, are so unfortunately familiar with.

During their rise to $40 billion in yearly profit, the Sacklers became iconic philanthropists to an extensive list of leading institutions. The Metropolitan, The National Gallery in London, The Louvre, The British Museum, The Guggenheim Gallery, and the Victoria and Albert have each collected hefty donations of up to $7 million from the family, which branded various additions to such institutions, such as: The Sackler Wing of the Metropolitan, The Sackler Centre for Arts Education and the Sackler Courtyard at the V&A.

The MET gallery renamed its wing in December 2021, but The V&A "long resisted calls to eliminate the Sackler name." Since May 2022, the V&A remained the last of such considerable galleries to remove their name from its walls --so what was the hold-up? Unsurprisingly, it comes down to their interests. Theresa Sackler, the V&A’s trustee, privileged her way into a position of power as the director of the museum's foundation in 2011. More than the erasure of their branding, the public wants them held responsible for the lives of about 500,000 people since 1999. The Sackler greed has crippled our economy by exploiting our blue-collar workers who are statistically more prone to injury and pain-killer prescriptions. According to the CDC, overdose is now the leading cause of death in the United States, surpassing even those of motor vehicle accidents, cancer, homicide and heart disease.

After much fallout, policing, and outcry, there is still no plateau in sight. The families affected have sought up to $8 billion in settlements from Purdue Pharma. Playing with the lives of our children, brothers, sisters, and mothers, the damage done is seemingly too great for justice. In September of 2019, Purdue filed for bankruptcy "halting almost 2,700 lawsuits filed against the family and their company." In a system rigged for the rich, we have mothing left but our stories --but we'll take back our art.

Keep Your Bloody Money!


As the storm festered, the Sackler’s greed came to light in media and protest. 2019 was our year, marked by public manifestations outside of Purdue offices and in galleries alike. Most notable of all is that of artist, Nan Goldin, who orchestrated public "die-in" protests, in which the protestors laid themselves out on the gallery floors alongside bloodied dollar bills and Sackler branded prescription bottles. Her organization, PAIN, demands the removal of Sackler signage and the forfeit of Purdue’s profits to be restored to the communities they destroyed. Goldin having struggled with addiction herself, she writes:

"I narrowly escaped. I went from the darkness and ran full speed into The World. When I got out of treatment I became absorbed in reports of addicts dropping dead from my drug, OxyContin. I learned that the Sackler family, whose name I knew from museums and galleries, were responsible for the epidemic.”

Goldin’s message was carried out across six museum spaces and making waves in the media. According to the New York Times, the first example that spurred the domino effect of Sackler erasure was when Britain's National Portrait Gallery turned down a $1.3 million donation from the family in March of 2019. Museums across the globe began rebranding their spaces, but not without organizing their interests first. After 14 months of debate, the Louvre took action that July, removing their name from its oriental antiquities wing. In November of 2019, Goldin’s team organized a die-in at the V&A’s Sackler Courtyard. The public outcry fell on deaf ears until Theresa Sackler’s term came to a natural end that year. It was then that the V&A began negotiating with the family to come to a “mutual decision” to remove the name. According to The Art Newspaper, the decision culminated in May of 2022.


This is one of several wins for Goldin since the start of the movement. Most recently, her center role in the documentary “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed,” won a Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale this year.

This Isn’t Over


Purdue will soon dissolve in accordance to its claim to bankruptcy, rebranding itself as Knoa Pharma, a “public benefit corporation” with a nonprofit initiative to distribute an opioid antagonist. To Goldin and her organization, this is no example of true justice. The work hasn't been done until our communities have been healed. After years of damning scientific research and no full stop of production, it's easy to see little remorse from the Sackler family.

Removing their names from our public spaces is just one step forward, but the Sackler’s image-laundering remains in one, final museum: The Arthur M. Sackler Museum at Harvard University. Hakim Bishara of HyperAllergic writes in its October 4 newsletter: “My question to Harvard's higher-ups: Have you ever stopped to consider how students and community members who lost loved ones to the opioid crisis might feel at your museum?” Goldin is an example of what what we can do in a rigged system: speak up, tell our truth, and make waves. Millions of Americans have stories –powerful stories of grief that have been white-washed like museum walls, by the immensity of greed.

Continue with conviction, friends. Stay creative: it’s our superpower.


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