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Sacking Sackler & May’s Civil War


Illustration by Rhiannon Powell

This week I begin with a story that has been bubbling away for some time now, the ongoing Sackler Affair. Many of you will be familiar with the name, the Sacklers seemingly have their name plastered all over every major arts institution in the country, from the V&A and the National Gallery, to the Royal Opera House and the National Theatre. Their name is even attached to our very own Sackler Research Forum here at The Courtauld. The trans-Atlantic family made their money in the pharmaceutical business and, through the Sackler Trust, for almost the last fifty years they have been giving art institutions across the US and UK large sums of money, often for new wings, extensions, or galleries that then come out from under the scaffolding with the family’s name emblazoned all over.

For many years the disgustingly underfunded arts have been lapping up this seemingly never-ending pot of gold that came flowing from the Sacklers and it is them we have to thank for such projects as the new courtyard and exhibition space at the V&A, dubbed the ‘Sackler Courtyard’ – quelle surprise. However, recent allegations have caused some institutions to think twice about excepting the trickle down from the Sackler fortune. Their drug firm, Purdue Pharma, produces and sells the prescription pain-killer OxyContin on the US market. Purdue has been accused of intentionally underselling the dangers of their drug to US medical regulators and, in turn, doctors and patients. OxyContin is stronger than morphine and has been pinned as one of the main culprits behind the enormous opioid crisis in the US which, it is estimated, results in over 100 deaths a day through overdoses and has created millions of addicts. Although this is nothing new, the family’s company already admitted misbranding the drug in a 2007 court case, the only difference is this time around the alleged death toll is higher.

So, with the Sackler’s money becoming as toxic as the drugs they peddle, it was only a matter of time before institutions started to turn it down. The National Portrait Gallery was the first to get the ball rolling when they decided to turn down a £1 million donation from the Sackler Trust on Tuesday. The gallery has been delaying their decision on the donation for some time now, as the money would help with their planned extension, but the announcement came on Tuesday that the gallery and the family together had decided it was best if they didn’t go ahead with the donation. A press statement from a spokesperson for the Sackler Trust said that, due to the ongoing allegations, “to avoid being a distraction for the NPG, we have decided not to proceed at this time with the donation.” Whether you believe the Sackler’s really did withdraw the donation or if this was a front to save face after the NPG turned them down is up to you – I know which side I lean towards.

Then on Thursday things took a more significant turn, Tate announced that it would no longer be accepting any Sackler money due to the legal proceedings against the family’s firm. Tate runs four institutions across the UK and house the national collection of painting, it is undoubtedly one of the largest forces in the British arts industry. For them to turn down Sackler money, not agree for them to quietly withdraw donations but to actively refuse any further connection with them, is a huge step. Tate have received £4 million from the Sacklers in recent years but this decision makes it very difficult for other national art institutions to accept Sackler money and adds to the increasing pressure on recent recipients of funds, such as the V&A. Tate’s decision to refuse this money on ethic grounds marks a step in the right direction as museums, venues, and galleries wake up to the inherent issues in the idea of the money of destitute American drug addicts funding the culture and arts scene in the UK. For a nation whose many art institutions have, let us say, unfortunate histories in the origins of their funding – Tate, slavery – it is refreshing that they should take a stand, even if it is a little late. I, for one, am interested to see how or if The Courtauld chooses to confront this issue as the NPG and Tate have.

Putting the Sackler Saga to one side, it would be remiss of me not to mention (look away now, you have been warned!) Brexit. This week has been full of the petty in-fighting and progress-less squabbles that have defined British politics for the last two years. However, some rather important and downright stupid things did happen. You’ll remember last week MPs voted for an extension to the period left before we leave and so this week May went to the EU to beg once more. But before she hopped on her flight, she did what is quite possibly the stupidest political move since Chamberlin tried appeasing Hitler. It was announced that Downing Street would be making a statement at 8pm on Wednesday evening – in the good old days before Brexit, a statement from Downing Street meant one of three things: the PM has resigned, there’s going to be an election, or there’s going to be a war. However, May seems to have adopted using these statements as a kind of personal vlog, an opportunity to offer the nation an unimportant soliloquy about the state of play – nothing someone with access to a newspaper couldn’t pick up themselves.

Wednesday was a little different however, she opened with the usual non-statement and then decided to blame Parliament for everything. Her lifeless eyes stared into the camera as she croaked out the words “I’m on your side.” On our side Theresa? You’re on the side of the people against the over 600 representatives that…they elected…ah. See the problem? She drew out these imaginary battle lines in a speech that sounded like the deranged wittering of the kind of person that is asked politely to leave the Question Time audience. In her new strategy of making Parliament public enemy number one, she has seemingly forgotten that next week she must try and get her deal past them for the THIRD TIME. If she wants any chance of doing this, she should be begging them on her knees and buying them flowers. Instead, Charles I style, she positioned her imperial majesty in direct opposition to the body of democratically elected politicians whose job it is to represent the people.

In the end, the EU offered a deal: if May passes her deal next week, which now looks unlikely, they will extend the leave date to the 22nd May. If she fails to pass her deal for the THIRD TIME, then the UK will likely crash out with no deal on the 12th April. Unless we revoke Article 50 and stop the clock (and I encourage you all to sign the online petition to do so). So, with the country falling apart around me, it’s only left to thank you for putting up with my rambling nonsense for another term.

Mind how you go.

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