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Nan Goldin and other anti-opioid activists march from the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in protest of the institutions’ ties to the Sackler family.
Nan Goldin and other anti-opioid activists march from the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in protest of the institutions’ ties to the Sackler family.

Nan Goldin and P.A.I.N. Group Protest Sackler Family at the Guggenheim

Photographer Nan Goldin, her group P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now), and dozens of activists flooded the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York on Saturday night in protest of the institution’s history with the Sackler family. The action, which began as a surprise demonstration in the museum’s rotunda, culminated at the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art after protesters marched there, holding banners and wielding signs that read “Shame on Sackler” and “Greed Kills.”

The Guggenheim is the latest cultural institution to be targeted by activists who want to hold the Sackler family and its company Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of OxyContin, responsible for the United States’ opioid epidemic. The protest comes on the heels of a New York Times report on recently disclosed internal documents from the pharmaceutical giant that show the Sackler family had a direct hand in misleading doctors and patients about the dangers of the drug. 

According to Megan Kapler of P.A.I.N., the action was also organized in response to the statements made by Richard Sackler, the son of the late Purdue founder Raymond Sackler and a former senior vice president of the company. New court filings in a Massachusetts lawsuit last month—which Purdue claimed was “riddled with demonstrably inaccurate allegations”—revealed that, at an event celebrating the introduction of the drug in the 1990s, Richard Sackler said the launch of OxyContin would be “followed by a blizzard of prescriptions that will bury the competition.” He added, “The prescription blizzard will be so deep, dense, and white.”

Those words inspired protesters to create their own blizzard. Shortly after 6:30 PM, demonstrators on the upper levels of the Guggenheim dropped hundreds of fake white scripts for 80 milligrams of OxyContin prescribed by Richard Sackler. Each paper features a controversial statement he made about the drug, including one in which he calls addicts criminals. “We have to hammer on the abusers in every way possible,” it reads. “They are the culprits of the problem. They are reckless criminals.”

As the papers fell, protesters unfurled banners from each level of the museum and held a die-in, lying down among the empty pill bottles and scripts scattered over the institution’s ground floor while chanting “Say it loud, say it clear: The Sacklers are not welcome here!” This was followed by a chorus of “It’s time, Guggenheim: Take down their name.”

Activists participating in a die-in on the ground floor of the museum.

Goldin, the driving force behind P.A.I.N. and a former addict whose activism against the Sackler family began last year, spoke to the crowd and listed the group’s demands, which range from having the Guggenheim review its policies on accepting donations to having it remove the Sackler name from its Sackler Center for Arts Education, which the museum established after it received “a gift of the Mortimer D. Sackler Family.” The center opened to the public in 2001.

As one of the richest families in America, the Sacklers, who are known internationally for their philanthropy, have been under intense scrutiny. As Goldin and the P.A.I.N. group ramp up their campaign to raise awareness about the opioid crisis and continue to call cultural and academic institutions out for accepting funding from the Sacklers, several members of the family have sought to distance themselves from the company. Jillian and Elizabeth Sackler—the wife and daughter of the late Arthur Sackler, who died before his brothers Raymond and Mortimer invented OxyContin—have since denounced the widespread sale of the painkiller.

Thirty minutes after the action kicked off, activists spilled out of the Guggenheim—just as the authorities began to show up—and continued the protest by marching down Fifth Avenue. Participants blocked the thoroughfare, disrupting traffic, as they walked side by side, shouting “Sacklers lie, people die,” prompting several police vehicles to flank the group and urge marchers to move to the sidewalk.

The protesters came to a stop on the steps of the Met, where several people delivered impassioned speeches to the crowd that gathered there. Among the speakers were Michael Galipeau, a cofounder and president of the Rhode Island User’s Union; Robert Suarez, a leader of the local chapter of Vocal New York, and Alexis Pleus, the founder of Truth Pharm and a grieving mother who called herself an accomplice in her son’s death because she listened to his doctors and encouraged him to take OxyContin as prescribed. He became addicted to the powerful painkiller and eventually died of a heroin overdose.

“We need to raise our voices; we need to take action,” Pleus said. “Let me tell you something, the families who have lost loved ones—my son, my children, it’s all that matters. Every parent understands that. What matters to the Sacklers? Money! . . . I don’t care if they go to jail, if they go to prison. I want their money. Do you know what else I want? I want that fucking patent to the new Suboxone. And I want that Suboxone free for every single person who needs it. How dare they try to profit even more off of this epidemic they created. Give us the Suboxone and give us the money.”

Another P.A.I.N. activist, L.A. Kauffman, attempted to put the protest in context. She pointed out that, across Central Park, the American Museum of Natural History is still grappling with a controversy sparked by Rebekah Mercer, a climate change denier who sits on the museum’s board, and the Whitney Museum of American Art in downtown Manhattan continues to face backlash over its ties to Warren B. Kanders, the owner of Safariland, a defense company that manufactures tear gas that was used on asylum seekers at the US–Mexico border last year. 

“We see museums and cultural institutions glorifying the very rich and giving them positions of power,” Kauffman said. “The Sackler family is one of many who have been able to stand outside the law because of their great wealth. The time is up.”

As the crowd began to disperse and police officers started to depart, the excitement of the night lingered. One member of the crowd called out to Goldin, “What’s next?” 

Goldin responded, “We move mountains.”

Demonstrators at a rally on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art following the Guggenheim protest on Saturday.