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Hito Steyerl. Photo: Dho Yee Chung.

Hito Steyerl Urges London’s Serpentine Sackler Gallery to “Divorce” from Sackler Funding

Artist Hito Steyerl joined the growing number of critics, cultural workers, and institutions denouncing Sackler arts sponsorship. She addressed the controversy at the preview of her exhibition at London’s Serpentine Sackler Gallery on Wednesday. The museum opened in 2013, backed by a $7.2 million grant from the Mortimer and Theresa Sackler Foundation.

“I would like to address the elephant in the room,” Steyerl said in her speech this week. “It’s a very tricky situation that affects a lot of people within the art scene. . . . Affected institutions and artists need to start coming together to find legal ways to address the problem and then commonly find ways to regulate it by using existing institutional bodies. . . . Imagine you were married to a serial killer and wanted a divorce; it shouldn’t be a problem to get a divorce.”

Steyerl said she asked for advice on how to protest the family’s funding from photographer and activist Nan Goldin, who has campaigned to hold the Sacklers accountable for their role in the United States’ opioid crisis that has claimed more than 200,000 lives. Goldin asked Steyerl to highlight two main demands: first, that the institution remove the Sackler name from its buildings, and second, that they make a public announcement on their position regarding future funding from the family.

“Up until yesterday I was thinking about how I can address this,” continued Steyerl. “I’m not personally affected, I live in a different health care system. But there are many ways in which problems can articulate themselves. The effect that I’m experiencing, and the arts as a whole, is its toxic leakage. I would kindly ask everyone to help to address this.” 

The Sacklers have made billions of dollars from the sale of OxyContin, the powerful painkiller manufactured by their private pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma. Several family members—including Dame Theresa Sackler, who chairs the Sackler Trust and is a board member of the Victoria and Albert Museum and a trustee of the Tate Foundation—are facing legal action for misinforming doctors and patients about the risks of taking the drug. 

A spokeswoman from the Serpentine said in a statement: “The Serpentine is a gallery that supports artists and their right to express their views. We have heard what Hito Steyerl has had to say today and the important issues that she has highlighted. Donations to the Serpentine from the Sackler Trust are historic and we have no future plans to accept funding from the Sacklers. We remain committed to being an open platform where emerging and established artists can be seen and heard.”

Other institutions that have publicly revealed they will refuse future gifts from the family include the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; the Jewish Museum, Berlin; Tate, Britain; and the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Hito Steyerl: Power Plants” opened at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery on April 11 and is on view through May 6.

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