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The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.
The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.

Smithsonian Institution Will Not Remove Sackler Name from Asian Art Museum

Arthur M. Sackler’s name will not be dropped from the Smithsonian’s Asian art museum in Washington, DC, the institution declared. The announcement comes amid waves of backlash against the Sackler family, who owns Purdue Pharma—the pharmaceutical company and OxyContin manufacturer currently battling hundreds of lawsuits related to its role in the opioid crisis.  

On June 19, Oregon senator Jeff Merkley sent a letter to the Smithsonian’s new secretary, Lonnie G. Bunch III, requesting the name be removed. “The Sackler family hooked thousands of Americans on OxyContin through aggressive and misleading marketing tactics and profited from one of the deadliest public health crises in our country,” he wrote. “The Sackler name has no place in taxpayer-funded public institutions, such as the Freer-Sackler Gallery.”

While Merkley’s call for the institution to distance itself from the Sackler family echoes the demands of Nan Goldin and her group P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now)—who staged a major action at the Louvre on Monday, the first Sackler protest to take place in Europe—and other activists, the Smithsonian is not able to simply erase the Sackler name.

In response to Merkley’s letter, Bunch wrote: “The legal agreement signed between the Smithsonian and Arthur M. Sackler was in keeping with the Smithsonian’s recognition practices at the time and obligated the Smithsonian to designate the facility as the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in perpetuity. For this reason the Smithsonian cannot remove the Sackler name from the gallery without breaking this commitment.”

Bunch’s reply, which was reviewed by the Washington Post, stressed that the institution is aware of the public’s concerns and knows that “in order to maintain and preserve the public trust, we must meet the highest ethical standards in all of our activities.” In 2011, the Smithsonian revised its policies on the naming of buildings and galleries, limiting it to twenty years or until the next major renovation or expansion project.

The Asian art museum was named after Arthur M. Sackler in 1982, following his gift of $50 million worth of Asian art and $4 million in support of the construction of the museum building. Arthur is the brother of Raymond and Mortimer Sackler, who bought a small drug company specializing in laxatives in 1952, and grew it into a pharmaceutical empire.

Even though Arthur died in 1987, after he sold his shares in the company to his brothers and before the invention of OxyContin, he remains a controversial figure because of his legacy of aggressive marketing. One year, following the introduction of OxyContin on the market in 1996, Arthur was inducted into the medical advertising hall of fame.