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 tog