Last December, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City removed the Sackler name from seven exhibition spaces, including the gallery that houses the majestic Temple of Dendur. It followed the footsteps of the Louvre Museum in Paris, Dia Art Foundation, New York University, and other institutions that had done the same. Now, more organizations may be able to strip the tainted family’s surname from their walls, programs, and endowed positions without facing penalties, as outlined in court filings this week.
The stipulation is part of a new settlement agreement reached by members of the billionaire Sackler family and their company, Purdue Pharma, to address their role in the opioid epidemic that has killed over half a million people in the United States. If the deal is approved by presiding bankruptcy judge, Robert D. Drain, the Sacklers would dole out up to $6 billion to resolve thousands of lawsuits accusing the company of falsely marketing and deliberately overprescribing its signature painkiller, OxyContin.
The Sacklers would also lose their naming rights at museums and other entities that have received their financial contributions a win for activists who have long accused the Sacklers of using philanthropy to “artwash” their complicity in the opioid crisis.
According to the filing, the family has agreed to “allow any institution or organization in the United States to remove the Sackler name from physical facilities and academic, medical, and cultural programs, scholarships, endowments, and the like.” Institutions would be required to give the family 45-days’ notice and ensure that any statements announcing the name removal “will not disparage the Sacklers.”
In a statement attached to the court filing, the Sacklers said they were “pleased to have reached a settlement with additional states that will allow very substantial additional resources to reach people and communities in need.” They also sustained that “the families have acted lawfully in all respects” and “regret that OxyContin…unexpectedly became part of an opioid crisis,” phrasing that has been criticized as inadequate and misleading.
“This statement from the Sacklers is horrendous,” said PAIN Sackler, the advocacy organization founded by artist Nan Goldin, in a tweet. “‘Unexpectedly’? A reminder that the Sacklers internally referred to high prescribing doctors as ‘whales’ and patented software that tracked every Oxycontin pill that was prescribed around the country.”
An earlier settlement agreement reached last year had been approved by a majority of states, tribes, and local governments, but a federal judge overturned the decision in December after nine states and the District of Columbia argued that it did not hold individual Sacklers properly accountable. They objected to releasing members of the family from all civil litigation, a point on which the Sacklers have unwaveringly insisted as a condition for making payments.
The latest deal does not do away with those contested protections, but includes a significant increase in the total payout from the Sacklers themselves, up from the previously agreed-upon sum of $4.55 billion. It is the first time in three years of negotiations that all states have approved a settlement with Purdue Pharma and the family, according to the New York Times.
Transcripts of a group chat between members of the Sackler family leaked in December 2020 exposed their reliance on philanthropy as a means of defending their public image. The scrapped settlement included a clause forbidding the Sacklers from seeking naming rights from museums and other institutions for nine years, the period allotted to the family to pay their opioid debt in full. In an interview with Hyperallergic at the time, Goldin called the temporary ban “appalling,” adding that it did not lead to “real consequences” for the individuals responsible.
Since 2017, PAIN Sackler has staged protests at institutions including the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and the Met and the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, staging so-called “die-ins” and tossing up “blood money” to raise awareness of Purdue and the Sacklers’ crimes.
It remains to be seen whether institutions that still bear the Sackler name, such as the Guggenheim Museum, whose arts education center was gifted by original Purdue Pharma co-founder Mortimer D. Sackler, will be swayed by the clause in the new settlement. A spokesperson for the Guggenheim told Hyperallergic that the museum “is reviewing details of the proposed new settlement.”