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Nan Goldin’s P.A.I.N. Group Teams Up with Med Students for Sackler Protest at Harvard

Photographer Nan Goldin and her anti-opioid group P.A.I.N. partnered with Harvard University medical students to stage a “Shame on Sackler” protest at the Harvard Art Museums in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on Friday, July 20. The demonstration was the fifth major action against the Sackler family, which owns Purdue Pharma—the company behind the development of the powerful painkiller OxyContin, which is one of the most common prescriptions responsible for opioid overdose deaths in the United States.

Activists first met at the university’s Lamont Library before they began making their way to the Renzo Piano–designed building, which has housed the university’s three museums—the Fogg Museum, the Busch-Reisinger Museum, and the Arthur M. Sackler Museum—since 2014. Once inside, the protesters gathered in the atrium, as well as on the floors above and began chanting “Shame on Sacklers” and “People over Profits.”

The protesters handed out pamphlets and unfurled banners that read “Medical Students Against the Sacklers” and “Harm Reduction Now. Treatment Now.” They also dropped empty pill bottles onto the atrium floor from the levels above and performed a “die-in.” Among the people who gave speeches at the event were Goldin; Jennifer Flynn Walker of the Center for Popular Democracy; Annatina Miescher, the former director of the chemical dependency outpatient program at Bellevue Hospital Center in New York; and student organizer and Harvard medical student Darshali Vyas, who will graduate next May.

“For my classmates and I, the opioid crisis is something that is at the forefront of our minds,” Vyas told Lauren Cavalli of artforum.com. “Seeing the enormous devastation the crisis has had on our communities and knowing the role the Sackler family and Purdue has played, we felt compelled to act.” She added, “The Sackler family knowingly profited off of OxyContin and hid its risk of dependence and its use, and we think it’s time for them to take responsibility, which means investing their wealth into treatment and harm reduction now.”

While Goldin, whose artworks are part of the Harvard Art Museums’ collection, and P.A.I.N urged Harvard to refuse any further donations from the Sackler family earlier this year, the student body is less focused on Harvard and more concerned with getting the Sacklers’ attention, according to Vyas. The students are demanding that the Sacklers fund Medicaid-assisted treatments, safe injection facilities, and Narcan to stop fatal overdoses.

Goldin told artforum.com that around one hundred people participated in the protest. The hour-long action was also one of the artist’s longest yet. When it carried on well past 5 PM, the museum’s closing time, the institution’s security personnel allowed it to continue. Some of the guards even accepted pamphlets and told Goldin that she was welcome back anytime.

Goldin considers her first action against the Sackler family to be publishing her photographs alongside a personal essay about her experience of being addicted to OxyContin from 2014 to 2017 in the January issue of Artforum. “The Sackler family and their private company, Purdue Pharma, built their empire with the lives of hundreds of thousands,” Goldin wrote. “The bodies are piling up.”

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Purdue, which was principally owned by the late Mortimer and Raymond Sackler when it launched OxyContin—a long-acting opioid—in 1996, used an aggressive marketing campaign that downplayed the risk of taking the drug and pushed doctors to prescribe it for a wide range of ailments. While the narcotic was effective in helping millions of patients with excruciating pain, due to its addictive nature many others became hooked on the drug and began to abuse it. In May, the New York Times reported that over the past two decades, more than 200,000 people have died in the United States from overdoses involving prescription opioids. According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, four out of five people who try heroin today started with prescription painkillers.

Even though the Stamford, Connecticut–based pharmaceutical company admitted in 2007 that it trained its sales representatives to tell medical professionals that OxyContin wasn’t as addictive and agreed to pay $600 million in fines as compensation because of the “misbranding,” Forbes estimates that the Sackler family still receives hundreds of millions of dollars from its various companies. While the family is known for its philanthropy, for Goldin, the Sacklers’ charitable donations should not distract from their involvement in the ongoing opioid crisis.

In March, Goldin held her first anti-opioid demonstration at the Temple of Dendur, which is located in the Sackler Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and then she brought the movement to the Smithsonian Institution’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, in April. The next protest, which took place in front of New York University’s Langone Medical Center on June 1, marked the first P.A.I.N. action spearheaded by the medical community.

MD-Ph.D. students Ashley Lewis and Paul Frazel, the organizers of the NYU student action, first became interested in taking a stand against the Sacklers after reading the New Yorker article “The Family that Built an Empire of Pain.” Since then, they’ve worked to educate themselves and fellow students on the opioid epidemic. They’ve held educational lectures with Andrew Kolodny, the codirector of the Opioid Policy Research Collaborative at Brandeis University, and town hall meetings and have met with the school’s administration on several occasions.

Lewis told artforum.com that they are asking NYU to commit to not taking any more donations. As a first-year medical and Ph.D. student in the Sackler Institute of Graduate Biomedical Sciences with about seven more years at NYU ahead of her, Lewis said: “We as students are only looking for the university to do the right thing and we want to be a part of that. From the information we know about the opioid epidemic, we only feel right by intervening.”

Lewis and other student activists have met with the deans of students for both the Sackler Institute and NYU’s medical school, as well as representatives from the development office, about their demands, which also include changing the name of the Ph.D. program. While the school would not commit to either request, it did reveal to Lewis that NYU is currently in negotiations with the Sacklers about the name of the program. However, it did not disclose any other details and refused Lewis’s request for student representation at the meetings. A spokesperson for NYU declined to comment for this article. 

“The negotiations are why we were interested in holding the protest and educational talk at the time that we did,” Lewis said. “We wanted to be vocal and make it clear that we are watching these negotiations.” She added, “The art world may have set things off, but it’s time for there to be more noise on the biomedical side of things.”

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Lewis emphasized that she believes NYU should set an example. “We know we as an institution can be better than the Sacklers and what they’re currently standing for. That’s why we’re so adamant about showing the public that people in science and medicine will no longer be complicit in this.” For Lewis, this is just the beginning. She plans on continuing to fight for NYU to disassociate from the Sackler family and to work with P.A.I.N. to engage other medical schools in the movement.

While the Sackler family has been under intense scrutiny over its connection to Purdue and the drug OxyContin, the individual ties of each family member to the controversy is complicated. While pharmaceutical entrepreneur Arthur Sackler died in 1987, long before the introduction of the drug, many activists claim that his skills in marketing and advertising contributed to company’s questionable sales practices. Arthur’s widow, Jillian Sackler, has adamantly denied his involvement in today’s opioid epidemic. “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,” she said in a statement. Arthur’s daughter Elizabeth Sackler, a prominent cultural philanthropist who endowed the Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, has also distanced herself from the activities of Purdue. In a letter to Artforum, she wrote that the company’s role in the opioid epidemic is “morally abhorrent.”

In response to Goldin and her P.A.I.N. Groups, Purdue has declared that it is taking steps to fight the national opioid crisis, and last month, it laid off its entire sales team. Despite the apparent restructuring at the company, Purdue may soon have to prove its commitment to battling the epidemic in court. In June, Massachusetts filed a lawsuit against the company. According to Reuters, Purdue is being sued by twenty-four states and the territory of Puerto Rico.

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