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Protest at Purdue Pharma Headquarters Leads to Gallery Owner’s Arrest

Fernando Luis Alvarez, the owner of an eponymous gallery in Stamford, Connecticut, was arrested for installing an eight-hundred-pound steel sculpture of a burnt heroin spoon in front of the headquarters of Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of the highly addictive painkiller OxyContin, on Friday, June 22.

According to the Hartford Courant, Alvarez faces a misdemeanor charge for obstruction of free passage for unloading the piece in the pharmaceutical company’s driveway and a felony charge for his failure to remove it when the police instructed him to. The authorities also informed Alvarez that he may be charged for the relocation and storage of the ten-and-a-half-foot-long artwork.

Titled Purdue, the sculpture was made by the Boston-based artist Domenic Esposito, who assisted Alvarez in staging the art protest. Esposito spent six months working on the piece, which was inspired by his brother’s struggle with addiction. For his brother, OxyContin and Percocet were the gateway drugs that led him to heroin. Since he started using nearly fourteen years ago, he has overdosed several times.

Founded by the late Brooklyn-born brothers and physicians Arthur, Mortimer, and Raymond Sackler, Purdue Pharma came under fire for launching an aggressive marketing campaign that claimed the concerns about opioid use were overblown, and in 2007 the company pleaded guilty in federal court to misleading the public about the risks of taking OxyContin. As a result, it was ordered to pay $600 million, and three executives were convicted of criminal charges.

Since then, Purdue Pharma has been sued over its role in the opioid epidemic by multiple states. Most recently, the company and the Sackler family have been targeted by activists who want them to do more to help people fight addiction by funding treatment centers and running advertisements that clearly state the dangers of opioid use. Photographer Nan Goldin, who wrote about establishing P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) in the January issue of Artforum, has championed the cause, leading protests at the Sackler Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art—which members of the Sackler family had supported with sizable donations—and other cultural organizations.

In response to the action, Purdue Pharma spokesperson Robert Josephson said in a statement: “We share the protesters’ concern about the opioid crisis, and respect their right to peacefully express themselves. Purdue is committed to working collaboratively with those affected by this public health crisis on meaningful solutions to help stem the tide of opioid-related overdose deaths.” 

Facing mounting pressure from the public, the company announced that it would stop promoting the drug in February, and on Wednesday, it said that it would eliminate the rest of its salesforce.

While the spoon currently sits in a police impound lot, Esposito told Time magazine that he and Alvarez plan to take the spoon to cities that are suing pharmaceutical companies and that they intend to leave it at other drug companies’ headquarters or at the offices of politicians and doctors that they view as complicit in the opioid epidemic.