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How Many Human Lives Does One Museum Wing Pay For?

What Nan Goldin’s protesting of the Sacklers’s complicity in the US opioid crisis tells us about self-deification and patronage

Temple of Dendur, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Temple of Dendur, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Courtesy: Flickr, Creative Commons; photograph: Xuan Che

Temple of Dendur, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Courtesy: Flickr, Creative Commons; photograph: Xuan Che

When asked if he would fund the construction of a new wing at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in the early 1970s, Arthur Sackler is said to have counted to ten before saying ‘I’ll do it.’ Such dramatized benevolence fit his persona, he was after all a man credited with bringing the hustle and wheedle tactics of advertising into the sterile realm of medicine. When the Sackler Wing at the Met was completed, younger brother Mortimer used the space to throw a lavish birthday party. The centrepiece: a cake shaped like the Sphinx, but with Mortimer’s face. If the Pharaohs of Egypt could self-deify, put their names on precious things, the Sacklers seemed to have decided, so could they.

Self-deification, the Pharaoh’s ghosts should have whispered into the brothers’s billionaire ears, is risky business, sometimes inviting the kind of scrutiny great wealth abhors. For the Sacklers, that protracted moment of unwelcome attention commenced last year when exposés in Esquire and the New Yorker drew attention to their clan’s complicity in America’s raging opiate epidemic. A new episode in the saga played out this past Saturday, when artist Nan Goldin led a group of 100 protestors into the hushed innards of the Sackler Wing itself. ‘Sacklers Lie, People Die,’ the protestors chanted, lined up around the moat that rings the Temple of Dendur as they tossed orange and white plastic pill bottles into the water. ‘Fund rehab, not museums!’ yelled Goldin, adding, ‘150 will die today, 10 will die in the time we are standing here.’

Those are big numbers of deaths, but the digits of the Sackler fortune are still bigger. The descendants of the two younger brothers, Mortimer of the Sphinx cake and Raymond (Arthur’s descendants sold their stake in the company several decades ago), are believed to be worth USD$13 billion dollars. Much of this wealth grew from the sale of Oxycontin, pushed by pain doctors impressed upon by the Sacklers’s assurances that it was the safer, less addictive painkiller.

Except that it is addictive, leading Goldin and others like her who took it ever deeper into drug dependency, overdose and self-destruction. The human wreckage the drug leaves behind is not visible at the Met, where awed visitors arrive to consider objects that exemplify the human ability to transcend mortality through the creative impulse.

That record of human frailty in the here and now, I witnessed while reporting in the American heartland, in states like Indiana and Ohio and West Virginia, felling entire families with the speed and cruelty of a tornado. There, I saw the aesthetic desolation of streets lined with boarded up houses, and the apologetic plastic flowers on too many fresh graves, mirror the actual despair of wrecked lives. Much of it is borne of the pill the Sackler’s company, Purdue Pharma, still sells, and any reprieve depends on damages they are unlikely to pay.

If one believes, like I do that art is the connection between culture and crisis – the means by which contemporary catastrophe can be lent coherence – then the pill bottles scattered in the moat in the Met are one attempt to realize this elusive link. Floating around, they ask simply: How many rights are required to correct an enormous wrong, how many human lives does one museum wing pay for?

[Robert Josephson, Executive Director of Communications for Purdue Pharma, who we reached out to for comment prior to publication, supplied the following statement following publication: ‘We are deeply troubled by the prescription and illicit opioid abuse crisis, and we are dedicated to being part of the solution. Purdue’s led industry efforts to combat prescription drug abuse which includes collaborating with law enforcement, funding state prescription drug monitoring programs and directing health care professionals to the CDC’s Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain. In addition, we’ve recently announced educational initiatives aimed at teenagers warning of the dangers of opioids and continue to fund grants to law enforcement to help with accessing naloxone.’]

Rafia Zakaria is the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan (Beacon, 2015) and Veil (Bloomsbury, 2017). She is a columnist for Dawn in Pakistan. She writes regularly for the Guardian, The Baffler, The New Republic, The New York Times, and many other publications.

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