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Does dirty money make the art world go round? Philanthropy from certain sources is increasingly deemed too dodgy to touch

The Guggenheim, New York. Credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The Guggenheim, New York. Credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

April 2, 2019   5 mins

Can corporate money ever be clean? Following the recent removal of the Sackler name and funding from museums in the US and the UK, it’s a question that needs to be asked.

The Sacklers are the family behind Purdue Pharma, the pharmaceutical giant that developed opioid painkiller OxyContin. This drug is widely used for pain relief and even more widely abused by people who either became addicted through reasonable medical use or those just looking to get high. It is currently the scourge of many communities across the western world.

While drug use and abuse are not new, the remarkable thing about the Sackler scandal is the allegation that the Purdue Pharma knew about the widespread misuse of the drug. And even pursued it. The company was supposedly also engaged in comprehensive marketing schemes to ensure sufficient OxyContin proliferation to destroy their competition. They had determined that the base clientele of Oxy users were the perfect customers for naloxone, the drug that reverses the effect of opioid overdose. They realised they could increase their profits by selling treatments for the problem their company was creating. The implication is that the Sackler family was aware of and in favour of these profit making motives.

These revelations spurred artist Nan Goldin to lead a protest with Prescription Addiction Intervention Now (P.A.I.N.) at the Guggenheim Museum in New York against the Sackler family’s funding of the institution. She and her fellow activists stood at the top of the iconic corkscrew curves and leafleted the glorious rotunda with white prescription-sized paper slips.

Goldin had been hooked on painkillers, and, having pulled herself out, wanted to make sure that consumers were aware of the dangers of the drug and of the willingness of both Purdue Pharma and, by implication, the Sacklers to perpetrate further addiction under the guise of care. But what Goldin and her fellow activists were also looking for was more than increased awareness.

They wanted the Guggenheim to refuse all future funding from the Sackler family foundations, and they wanted the name pulled off buildings and wings built with that money. It was not enough that visitors to galleries and museums funded by the Sacklers should know the corporate misdeeds of its patrons, but that the name and the money itself, should be scrubbed from institutional existence.

This is not the first time that activists have questioned the dirty origins of the money that fund America’s greatest cultural institutions. And the same thing has happened in Britain. In 2011, there was controversy over BP’s donations to the Tate; and there have been persistent calls from both sides of the Atlantic for arts and humanitarian organisations to boycott any funding from the Koch Brothers. Recently, there has been a move for the Zuckerberg name to be removed from a hospital that his foundation funded.

The argument against the Koch brothers is that they have used their influence and money to advocate for political candidates and policies that are opposed to action against climate change, and that the world is in such dire, existential straits that we cannot spend their money and still survive as a planet.

When BP funding was protested, similar logic was applied. BP is a fossil fuel company. If we keep using these energy sources, they said, we won’t have a planet anymore. Well, sustainable energy sources need to be implemented by energy companies, and when they reach a more profitable state of production and distribution, or perhaps when the fear-mongering surrounding nuclear energy dissipates, they will. Just as we’re not sending whaling ships out there to hunt down baby belugas and scrape the fat off them to enable us to burn a light in the darkness, fossil fuels will decline as other energy resources take their place.

Much of the American artistic, cultural, educational and medical infrastructure was funded by robber barons, tycoons of industry, and companies and families that had money to burn (hello, runaway capitalism). The Rockefeller, Carnegie, Ford, and Astor families, to name a few, profited from unfair labour practices, not to mention slavery, the decimation of native tribes, exploitation of natural resources, all of which enabled an ultra-rich class that subsequently felt a noblesse oblige to provide at least some pittance to the lower classes.

So they did, in the form of contributions to and founding capital in major long-lasting cultural institutions. In New York alone, the funding basis for The Met, Lincoln Center, MoMA, The Museum of Natural History, and plenty of other basic, essential, cultural institutions that the citizenry of this city where I live rely on were funded with filthy money. No questions were asked as the public lined up to see all the unearthed wonders from Egyptian tombs, or sought treatment in clean new hospital wings. The received wisdom was that if the money needed to be cleaned, charitable giving was the way to do it. This is what was meant by the concept of “giving back”.

The Sackler family, BP, the Koch brothers, Zuckerberg, all have money to give away, and they want to give it. If cultural or educational institutions no longer wish to take it, then that won’t stop these people giving it to some other useful cause, nor will any boycott negatively impact either their bottom lines or their impulse to generate more wealth and power. In the case of the Sacklers, the money may go to settle the myriad lawsuits being brought against them and their complicity in OxyContin addiction and over distribution. This will move the money from Sackler hands to government hands, a net win, since governments have never been guilty of misuse of funds.

Perhaps cultural institutions will crowd source their funding from now on, and in order to make sure that no unclean money filters through their Patreon accounts, they will ask donors to complete intricate forms as to their beliefs, practices and investments.

Or maybe development officers will solicit big gifts from companies that are only known for their good works, such as those in… some industry where everyone is paid equitably throughout the global supply chain and no one at any level is exploited, and each corporate officer has only the best intentions for their entity and has never even once hired an illegal nanny or under tipped or wanted their products to do well to the exclusion or detriment of their competitors.

It’s too bad all the big corporations aren’t into giving their money away anonymously, for no credit or return, so that society could benefit from their largesse without being confronted with the moral or ethical failures that facilitated it.

As things stand, protesters and activists believe that money from unethical pharmaceutical companies, oil companies, social media companies with dodgy privacy reputations, and capitalist investors should be off limits. It is unclear if the motivation here is to punish the donors – or the cultural institutions. Nor is it clear which funders should be forced to defund major cultural assets.

In Britain, it’s not so easy to hand back money to philanthropists. The Charity Commission regulations make moral outrage a little harder to pull off if you’ve already accepted money from a source subsequently deemed tainted.

But what do we really think will happen if we deny the fruits of humanity’s labours? We have sacrificed ourselves, our resources, our work. Lives were lost in the effort to further the human cause upon this earth, and now we wish to reap no reward from those devastating efforts. Let’s not lose our ground just because we hate what it cost to achieve it.

To target the tarnished legacy of our forebears is to negate the work they did on our behalf, work so that we could have clean water and plumbing, electricity at the touch of a switch, plentiful food, infrastructure, education, and yes, glorious, perpetual, beautiful, soul shocking, art. Art, that reward for our struggle, that means to connect with each other and with humanity from across all time, is the prayer that we say all together.

Libby Emmons is a writer, award-winning playwright and co-founder of Blue Box Productions, based in Brooklyn.


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