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Nan Goldin, The Sackler Courtyard, The Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 2017.

Sackler WhatsApp Chats Reveal Reliance on Museums to Clear Family Name

A raft of private Sackler family WhatsApp chats published December 19 by The.Ink reveals that members of the family sought the help of beneficiary arts institutions in clearing the Sackler name in relation to the Purdue Pharma suit that was settled in October. That suit, which centered around Purdue’s practice of aggressively marketing the opioid OxyContin while downplaying the drug’s addictive qualities, ultimately saw the drugmaker plead guilty to the felony charges of defrauding the US government; violating the US Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act; and violating the federal anti-kickback statute. The messages were released as part of Purdue’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceeding, begun more than a year ahead of the settlement, which is expected to render the $8.3 billion fine leveled against the company by the US Department of Justice—the largest ever involving a pharmaceutical company—effectively symbolic.

In the messages, dating between October 2017 and June 2019, family members suggest contacting various museums that have received hefty donations from the Sacklers and asking them to provide “short positive statements” about the family in regard to their philanthropic efforts. Among those suggested were the American Museum of Natural History, the Dia Art Foundation, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, all in New York, as well as the Tate and the Victoria & Albert Museum, both in London.

The messages show members of the family becoming increasingly distressed about the damage being done by the Purdue scandal to the family name, and suggest that emails from reporters to beneficiary museums seeking comment on the matter were being relayed by the institutions to Sackler family members via the PR firm Edelman.

In several cases, family members evidently spoke directly with museum staff regarding their concerns, or approached them through personal contacts. In a 2018 message regarding the continuing efforts of artist Nan Goldin—who began campaigning against the Sacklers as part of her PAIN activist group after revealing her own battle with OxyContin in the pages of Artforumto get institutions to refuse or return Sackler family money, Mortimer Sackler wrote, “Better that the company use her protests as an opportunity to speak to the industry leading work they have been doing to combat prescription drug abuse. What we SHOULD do is make sure that the Guggenheim, AMNH, DIA, etc are not going to say something unhelpful. We should compile a list of organizations and decide who should speak with which.”

“I speak regularly with dia [sic] on all of this,” wrote Marissa Sackler, “and they fully support us and think Nan Goldin is crazy.”

“I am reaching out to the AMNH through the chairman of the board’s best friend,” responded Ilene Sackler Lefcourt.

Sackler Lefcourt was perhaps the only family member to suggest in the batch of messages that the family sacrifice Purdue’s profits, writing in October  2017, “I just spoke to Josie. She told me under active consideration, proposed by Craig, is stopping all sales rep. activity of oxy. The financial result is being calculated. I am in favor of moving this ahead asap. And think the bigger the estimated cost to the company, the better.”

Moments later, Mortimer delivered a killing blow to the topic. “This is not the forum to discuss that.”

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