Tristram Hunt, the director of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, has defended his institution’s acceptance of funding from members of the Sackler family – multibillionaire philanthropists who are linked to the US opioid crisis.
‘Like many other cultural institutions, we receive very generous support from the Sackler family and we’re grateful for that,’ Hunt commented on BBC Radio Four’s Today programme. Hunt said that in the context of slashed public funding to culture, ‘if we want our great cultural institutions to achieve a lot, we also have to seek a broad range of funders.’
On 19 March, London’s National Portrait Gallery became the first leading gallery to reject a grant from the Sackler family – what would have been a GBP£1 million donation. The Tate and New York’s Guggenheim soon followed suit, cutting ties with Sackler funding.
Certain Sackler family members own Purdue Pharma, which produces the highly addictive prescription painkiller OxyContin. It has been alleged that the drug was falsely advertised, and played a major role in the US’s opioid crisis. The company and associated Sackler members have denied wrongdoing.
Artist and activist Nan Goldin has led a high profile campaign against arts institutions’ connections to Sackler money, with her group P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) holding protests across major cultural venues.
Earlier this year, Goldin told frieze that she believed that the age of using the arts for ‘reputation laundering’ was coming to an end: ‘There’s a demand for accountability and visibility now and so you can’t operate in the same way […] There’s a surge of people fighting back against immorality. These times are so dark, so we have to fight against something, we have to pick our fight.’
At the end of March, the Sackler Trust announced that it would halt all new charitable giving in the UK, amid hundreds of lawsuits filed against members of the family over their alleged connections to the US opioid crisis. Chair of the trust and widow of former Purdue owner Mortimer Sackler, Theresa Sackler, said: ‘The Trustees of the Sackler Trust have taken the difficult decision to temporarily pause all new philanthropic giving, while still honouring existing commitments.’ Hunt told the BBC that he respected the decision.
The V&A currently includes a Sackler centre for arts education, as well as a GBP£2 million courtyard named after the family. Theresa Sackler sits on the V&A’s board of trustees. Questioned over whether she remained a fit person to be a V&A trustee, Hunt defended her position: ‘The Sackler family do dispute much of what is in the courts […] Theresa brings a lot to the conversation in terms of her background as a primary school teacher and her focus on education.’
Hunt continued: ‘We take all of these ethical issues incredibly seriously. It goes to our audit committee. We discuss it in detail.’