An Astounding List of Artists Helped Persuade the Met to Remove the Sackler Name

For nearly five decades, the Met Gala, among the fashion world’s most significant events, has been held in the Sackler Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a dramatic space featuring a wall of glass, a sleek reflecting pool, and the ancient Egyptian Temple of Dendur. Prior to this year’s gala, in September, the museum’s…

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For nearly five decades, the Met Gala, among the fashion world’s most significant events, has been held in the Sackler Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a dramatic space featuring a wall of glass, a sleek reflecting pool, and the ancient Egyptian Temple of Dendur. Prior to this year’s gala, in September, the museum’s C.E.O., Daniel H. Weiss, gave an interview to Time, in which he was asked about the name of the wing. In recent years, controversy has engulfed the Sackler family, as revelations emerged that much of the fortune of two of the Sackler brothers, Mortimer and Raymond, and their company, Purdue Pharma, was derived from the sale of OxyContin, a painkiller that helped to precipitate the opioid crisis. (I first wrote about the Sacklers in a 2017 article for the magazine, and have since published a book about them, “Empire of Pain.”) In May, 2019, the Met had announced that it would refuse any future donations from the Sacklers. But now, Weiss indicated, the museum was considering a further step. Asked if the name of the Sackler Wing might be gone in six months, he replied that an answer could come “a lot sooner.”

On Thursday, the Met released a short statement saying that “seven named exhibition spaces in the Museum, including the wing that houses the iconic Temple of Dendur, will no longer carry the Sackler name.” It was not the first museum to take such action (the Louvre had already done so), nor was it the first major American institution (Tufts University took the name down in 2018, followed by New York University last year). But the Met is in a class of its own. Not only is it the premier art museum in the United States, it is the museum with which the Sackler family has the longest history. It was also the site of the first dramatic protest by the photographer Nan Goldin and her advocacy group, Prescription Addiction Intervention Now (PAIN), which has sought to shame museums into ending any association with the Sackler name. In March, 2018, Goldin and her supporters swarmed into the Met and threw hundreds of orange pill bottles into the reflecting pool in the Sackler Wing. Dozens of other arts and education institutions around the world still prominently display the Sackler name, including the Guggenheim, Yale, Oxford, the National Gallery in London, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and Tel Aviv University. The boards of many of these organizations—and the activists and students who are pressuring them to do something—have been watching the Met to see how the museum would react. As long as the Met did nothing, inertia might have seemed like a viable option.

In March, 2018, Nan Goldin and her supporters swarmed into the Met and threw hundreds of orange pill bottles into the reflecting pool in the Sackler Wing.Photograph by George Etheredge / NYT / Redux

After all, for institutions that rely on the generosity of donors, this process of un-naming is a deeply vexing issue. As Weiss told the Times, in 2019, “We are not a partisan organization, we are not a political organization, so we don’t have a litmus test for whom we take gifts from based on policies or politics.” A few years ago, someone who worked at the Met joked to me that, if the museum were to start purging donors on the basis of their corporate social responsibility, it might soon find itself with no donors left. Philanthropic gifts that are bestowed in exchange for naming rights should not be confused with charity; these are business deals, and any prospective donors in the future may wonder about the security of their investment, in the event that at some point a company pleads guilty to criminal charges or a family name falls into disrepute. So, for the Met to remove the name in this manner marked a very bold and decisive step—and one that the museum could not have taken without a great deal of legal consultation.

Based on conversations with people involved, I can report that talks between the Met’s leadership and representatives of all three branches of the Sackler family have been ongoing for months. In the announcement on Thursday, the museum made the decision sound like a conscious uncoupling, saying that the Met and the families of Mortimer and Raymond Sackler had “mutually agreed to take this action in order to allow The Met to further its core mission.” The Sacklers, in their own statement, described themselves as “passing the torch to others who might wish to step forward to support the Museum.” The subtext was ironic: fellow-billionaires, prepare your bids. The naming rights to one of the premier public spaces in New York City may once again be up for sale.

Behind the scenes, the museum was also under pressure from a constituency that it could not ignore: artists. This fall, Nan Goldin and her allies prepared a letter to the Met’s board of trustees urging the removal of the Sackler name. The Met “is a public institution dedicated to art, learning and knowledge,” they argued. “Honoring the Sackler name on the walls of the Met erodes the Met’s relationship with artists and the public.” Given the fact that Purdue Pharma has twice pleaded guilty to federal criminal charges, and considering the staggering death toll of the opioid crisis, they suggested, “This is a situation of force majeure.”

Because of Goldin’s prominence in the art world, and the moral vigor of her campaign, she was able to assemble an astounding list of signatories, featuring many of the most significant living artists, among them Ai Weiwei, Laurie Anderson, Maurizio Cattelan, Jim Dine, Jenny Holzer, Arthur Jafa, Anish Kapoor, William Kentridge, Cindy Sherman, Brice Marden, Ed Ruscha, Richard Serra, and Kara Walker. (The full text of the letter and the list of signatories, neither of which has previously been made public, are below.) Torn between these two constituencies—donors and artists—the Met ended up heeding the artists.

By the time I visited the museum on Thursday, shortly after the Met made its announcement, the Sackler name was already almost entirely gone. (It will remain in two galleries named for Arthur Sackler, the eldest of the three brothers, who was a pioneer of many of the deceptive advertising methods used by Purdue to sell OxyContin, but who died before the introduction of the drug.) When I walked up the grand central staircase after entering the museum, I was no longer greeted by the words “The Dr. Mortimer D. and Theresa Sackler Gallery” inscribed in stone above the door leading to the European paintings. The signage announcing the Sackler Wing had also been erased overnight. When I remarked to someone who works at the Met that it must have taken some effort to vanish the name so comprehensively without anyone witnessing the act, he would offer no details, but did note, dryly, that “the museum is closed on Wednesdays.”

Before I left the Met, I bumped into Goldin, who had arrived with some of her fellow-protesters from PAIN to celebrate. “I’m not used to processing good news,” she said. Her campaign began nearly four years ago, at this very museum, and, in the interim, she had watched a series of public institutions—the Department of Justice, state prosecutors, a bankruptcy court in White Plains—fail to hold the Sacklers to account. This was a symbolic gesture, to be sure. It wasn’t genuine accountability, not by a long shot, and it certainly wouldn’t bring anyone back to life. But, for a family that has invested so much in burnishing its reputation in the art world, the symbolic renunciation must sting. And, for Goldin, there was a feeling that she could now once again simply enjoy the museum’s hallowed halls, undistracted by a name that has the whiff of death. “I’m just so grateful to the Met,” she said. “It’s wonderful. I feel vindicated.”


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