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Nan Goldin Leads “Shame on Sackler” Protest at the Metropolitan Museum

Dozens of activists flocked to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York today to protest the Sackler family and their private company Purdue Pharma, and to hold them accountable for the ongoing opioid crisis. At 4 PM, demonstrators converged on the Temple of Dendur, which is located in the north wing—known as the Sackler Wing—of the museum, with banners that read “Shame on Sackler” and “Fund Rehab.” They also chanted numerous phrases and statistics that were first belted out by artist Nan Goldin, including “Sacklers knew their pills would kill” and “115 people dead today.”

The crowd was emboldened by Goldin’s participation. The artist has become a champion of the battle against the opioid epidemic ever since she spoke out about her own experiences with addiction in a personal essay she published alongside a photographic series in the January issue of Artforum. Those participating in the action also threw empty pill bottles into the Temple of Dendur Reflecting Pool, performed a “die-in” by lying on the ground and pretending to be dead, and handed out P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) pamphlets containing a list of demands. Among them was that the Sackler family invest 46 percent of their profits toward funding treatment centers and campaigns that advertise the dangers of drugs such as OxyContin as aggressively as they sell them to the public. Prior to the protest, Goldin called for the public to pressure the Sackler family into “responding meaningfully” to the opioid crisis by endorsing an online petition, which she launched in January. It currently has more than thirty thousand signatures.

In response to the petition and the outcry against the Sacker family, Elizabeth Sackler has voiced her support for Goldin and her group P.A.I.N. In a letter that was published in the February issue of Artforum she wrote: “The opioid epidemic is a national crisis and Purdue Pharma’s role in it is morally abhorrent to me. I admire Nan Goldin’s courage to speak about her story and her commitment to take action. I created the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum as a beacon for equality, equity, and justice for women—for all people. I stand in solidarity with artists and thinkers whose work and voices must be heard. My father, Arthur M. Sackler, died in 1987, before OxyContin existed, and his one-third option in Purdue Frederick was sold by his estate to his brothers a few months later. None of his descendants have ever owned a share of Purdue stock or benefited in any way from it or the sale of OxyContin.”

As the protesters filed out of the Metropolitan Museum, after the action was completed, they congregated around Goldin on the steps of the institution to hear the rest of the speech she started to give in front of the temple. Before the demonstrators dispersed, Goldin assured the crowds that this is just the beginning.

[UPDATE: Jillian Sackler, the widow of the late Arthur M. Sackler, has responded to this story by providing with the statement featured below.]

Much of what’s been written in recent months about my late husband, Dr. Arthur M. Sackler, is utterly false. Arthur died nearly a decade before Purdue Pharma—owned by the families of Mortimer and Raymond Sackler (his brothers)—developed and marketed OxyContin. At the time of his death in 1987, Arthur was lauded for his contributions to medical research, medical communications, and museums. He was a renowned art collector and connoisseur, and because of this, we have the Arthur M. Sacker Gallery of Chinese Stone Sculpture at The Met, the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian, the Arthur M. Sackler Museum at Harvard, the Jillian and Arthur M. Sackler Wing of Galleries at the Royal Academy, and the Arthur M. Sackler Museum of Art and Archaeology and the Jillian Sackler Sculpture Garden at Peking University. None of the charitable donations made by Arthur prior to his death, nor that I made on his behalf after his death, were funded by the production, distribution or sale of OxyContin or other revenue from Purdue Pharma. Period.

Further, as a physician and medical scientist, Arthur was moved by a curiosity and desire to improve lives with new therapies. He made a substantial part of his fortune over fifty years in medical research, medical advertising and trade publications. His philanthropy in medicine extended to the Arthur M. Sackler Center for Health Communications at Tufts University and the Arthur M. Sackler Sciences Center at Clark University.

All these gifts, made in the 1970s and 80s, were made independently of his brothers and their families. Thus, for anyone to assert that institutions received ‘tainted’ gifts from Arthur is ludicrous.

Passing judgment on Arthur’s life’s work through the lens of the opioid crisis some thirty years after his death is a gross injustice. It denies the many important contributions he made working to improve world health and to build cultural bridges between peoples.