Friday, April 5, 2019

Knee Jerking?

Every day it seems someone is publicly outraged about something. People channel their disapproval of an institution or person, dead or alive, into media campaigns to remove a name from a building, banish a statue from a public square, or fire those they declaim as responsible. There is no shortage of targets, reasonable or unreasonable.

Now, these so-called SJWs ("Social Justice Warriors") are coming for the museums. Specifically, they are taking aim at mega-donations that support major new projects and exhibits. The latest outrage campaign, against the family who made a fortune on the best known drug blamed for America’s opioid epidemic, has sparked new conversations about donation acceptance and recognition policies and how museums should balance gifts with potential controversies about their givers.

One purpose of these campaigns, aside from attainment of any specific objective, is public shaming.  Recent news articles have helped me understand this phenomenon. In the March 10th edition of The New York Times there is a piece by Salvatore Scibona entitled “The Industrial Revolution of Shame.” His thesis is that new technologies have made it possible to expansively make and distribute products. The particular product Scibona fixes on is “our judgment of one another.”  

The writer expands: “ Media culture has found a sweet spot in the collective psyche – outrage.”  To which he adds: “Technology has so multiplied the outrages confronting us that they crowd out our ability to discuss much else.”  These perceptions allow me to examine one particular shaming campaign in a field with which I am familiar – museums.

Prominent photographer and activist Nan Goldin and her advocacy organization P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) has embarked on a campaign against museums that have benefited from donations  from the Sackler family who, in return , have had galleries, buildings and programs named after them. The Sackler family founded Purdue Pharma, the maker of the addictive drug OxyContin, which is largely blamed for the horrendous opioid epidemic that has resulted in the loss of thousands of lives across the nation. Since the drug was introduced in 1996, sales have generated $35 billion for Purdue and $4 billion for the Sackler family, members of which still make up the majority of the Pharma board of directors.

The museums targeted by Ms. Goldin, on social media and by dramatic demonstrations on site, include New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, where there is a Sackler Wing and The Guggenheim, whose education department bears the Sackler name. The art museums at Harvard are also on P.A.I.N.’s target list. P.A.I.N.  demands that the Sackler name be stripped from the museums and for Pharma to fund programs combating the opioid epidemic. 

Prominent among the family’s museum naming and another campaign target is the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian in Washington DC.  Along with its neighbor The Freer Gallery of Art, it comprises the Smithsonian’s national museum of Asian art. The Sackler Gallery was founded in 1987 and named in honor of Arthur Sackler, whose foundation donated his superb collection of Asian art along with funds to establish the institution.

Arthur Sackler’s daughter Elizabeth has been vigorous in pointing out that a) Arthur Sackler died in 1990, six years before the invention of OxyContin, and b) his brothers Raymond and Mortimer bought out his share in Purdue shortly after his death. Yes, Arthur was a Sackler and yes, he was one of the founders of Purdue but he had no connection with OxyContin. So what is the rationale for demanding the removal of his name from the Gallery at the Smithsonian, which has stated it has never removed a name from a museum and has no intention of doing so in this instance? 

A statement by Dominic Esposito, a sculptor associated with P.A.I.N. provides an answer. He said “Sackler has gone from a legacy of arts and culture philanthropy to (one of) death and destruction.” Clearly that transition is the intent of the campaign, if not the clear result at present.  It is a public shaming effort designed to obscure the extended Sackler family‘s generosity to museums, hospitals and universities going back decades and to punish the family for its profitable association with OxyContin.

The likelihood of names being removed from structures or professorships is marginal, as there are contractual issues. The same would apply to return of funds. In the Smithsonian example, taking it to an absurd conclusion, I suppose there might be an asterisk placed next to Arthur Sackler’s name, much like how  Major League baseball record holders suspected of performance drug enhancement are listed:  "* Sackler Gallery not directly connected to Oxy-Contin."

The campaign appears to be having its effect. Recently The Tate Gallery Group and the National Portrait Gallery, both prominent British museums with long associations with the Sackler family, announced they would no longer seek or accept donations from the Mortimer and Raymond Sackler branch of the family. Sackler gifts to Tate have amounted to about $5.3 million over the years. The Portrait Gallery has suspended a planned $1.3 million donation from the Sackler Trust. Significantly the Tate group stated: “We do not intend to remove references to (the Sackler) historical philanthropy. “
Meanwhile in New York City, the Guggenheim announced on March 21 it would also no longer accept gifts from the Sackler family, who donated $9 million to the museum between 1995 and 2015. The museum added it has no plans to change the name of the Sackler Center for Arts Education, as the designation was made by contract. 

Purdue Pharma , still largely owned by members of the Sackler family, is facing some 1600 lawsuits over the purported  connection of OxyContin to the opioid crisis. It is reportedly considering filing for bankruptcy to protect the company while litigation drags on. On March 25th, Purdue settled, out of court, a claim by the state of Oklahoma for $270 million. Notably a large portion of the money will go to funding  an addiction and treatment center at Oklahoma State University.

P.A.I.N. asserts that the Sackler philanthropy was purposely designed by the family to mask the “blood money” derived from the sale of opioid drugs. But as several museums have pointed out, much of the philanthropy, and the family tradition connected with it, predates the sale of OxyContin.  But this is too fine a point for the P.A.I.N and it would dilute its objective: to besmirch the Sackler name and by association institutions that have accepted the family’s money. 

The museums that so far have decided to cease accepting Sackler philanthropy are bowing to negative publicity at the expense of any public benefit the uses of those gifts might have produced. While I don’t think It does any  good to second guess such  judgment  calls,  I do agree that the ex post facto removal of the Sackler name serves no purpose except the public shaming one. That outcome is already on its way to some success, given the recent actions by the Guggenheim and two British museums.

Finding positive aspects to this tragic situation is worth the effort.  The Sackler family is increasing its funding of opioid addiction treatment programs. And conversations are underway in the charitable sector over the balance between “mega” gifts and their sources. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art for instance is reviewing its donation acceptance policies). The public scrutiny of the relationship, by the way, is not new.  In the Gilded Age, the gifts of Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller were called into question citing their history of union-busting and ruthless monopolistic practices.  Yet their names today are in in the philanthropy Parthenon
As for the general public I would urge resisting the common “knee jerk” reaction to public outrage issues. I have often wondered how much electricity could be generated if somehow the knees of America were attached to a generating source.  Salvatore Scibona in his article in The New York Times suggests that rather than sitting in judgment, the observer should become more of a witness to allow a calmer opportunity for formation of a balanced moral response.  That way shaming is not the objective but rather working towards deeper solutions to the crisis itself –in this case  the devastation the opioid crisis has wrought on thousands of families and its effect on our national sense of self-worth.

Comments on this and any other blog post found in the archive (viewed to the left) are welcome at  And Happy Diamond Anniversary! This is my 75th posting since I started the blog eight years ago.