Scrutiny of the Sackler family prompts closer look at arts philanthropy in Canada

Museums and galleries have always depended on wealthy benefactors. But as a growing list of institutions refuse donations from the Sackler family, owners of OxyContin-maker Purdue Pharma, the cultural sector's vetting process for its deep-pocketed donors is getting a closer look.

'You make the best decisions you can ... when the gift is made,' says head of National Gallery Foundation

Photographer Nan Goldin leads a protest last July at the Sackler Art Museum at Harvard University. A growing number of institutions say they won't accept donations from the Sackler family. Their company, Purdue Pharma, made a fortune selling opioids. (Erin Clark/Boston Globe/Getty Images)

Museums and galleries have always depended on wealthy benefactors. But as a growing list of institutions refuse donations from the Sackler family — whose company, Purdue Pharma, faces accusations of fuelling the opioid crisis with its addictive drug OxyContin — the cultural sector's vetting process for its deep-pocketed donors is getting a closer look.

Just how closely do museums and galleries in this country scrutinize those bearing financial gifts? 

In recent weeks, philanthropic arms of the Sackler family have halted all new donations as high-profile museums such as Britain's National Portrait Gallery and the Tate, New York's Guggenheim and the Jewish Museum in Berlin have all said they would no longer accept Sackler money.

The family's philanthropic legacy in the arts is very extensive. The Louvre in Paris and New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art each have a Sackler Wing. London's Victoria and Albert Museum has a Sackler Courtyard, while the Serpentine has a Sackler Gallery. Washington has the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of Asian Art (under the Smithsonian's umbrella) and Harvard University has a Sackler Museum. And the Royal Ontario Museum has a Sackler Reading Room. 

The Sackler name is found on the walls of some of the world's top museums and universities, including the Guggenheim, the Louvre and, seen here, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. (Seth Wenig/Associated Press)

"There's a lot that's being revealed. It's a time of transparency," American art photographer Nan  Goldin told CBC's  As It Happens in an interview in March.

Goldin, who is a recovering opioid addict, has campaigned in recent years for institutions to stop accepting Sackler donations.

"A place that's a repository of culture, of learning, of the highest, noblest endeavours of man" shouldn't have its walls tainted by scandal, she said.

Purdue Pharma, which is owned by the Sackler family, faces hundreds of lawsuits alleging the company downplayed the highly addictive nature of OxyContin as it aggressively marketed the painkiller. The company argues its products were approved by federal regulators and prescribed by doctors.

The Sacklers have also denied what they call the "baseless" accusations against the family.

The issue of digging into the background of arts philanthropists isn't new, but the Sackler story has garnered intense interest because of its scale — and it has definitely caught the attention of institutions across Canada, said Karen Colby-Stothart, chief executive of the National Gallery of Canada Foundation.

At major venues like the National Gallery in Ottawa, decisions regarding donations aren't made by a single person, she explained. Rather, they go through an internal review process involving a committee that can include gallery heads as well as leadership of the gallery's foundation. If the committee approves it, the proposed donation would be presented to the boards of both the gallery and the foundation for further consideration.

Colby-Stothart said there are usually specific gift and naming policies established by the institution, along with regulations set by the Canada Revenue Agency.

The Sackler story has definitely caught the attention of institutions across Canada, says Karen Colby-Stothart, chief executive officer of the National Gallery of Canada Foundation. (CBC)

The gift policy at the Art Gallery of Ontario, for example, says the gallery reserves the right to decline a gift in different circumstances, including if it "could reasonably compromise the AGO's public image, reputation or commitment to its mission, priorities and strategic plan."

Meanwhile, the National Gallery's naming policy states that proposals will be considered with due regard for the gallery's code of conduct. The policy also allows for termination of an agreement for a variety of reasons, including "if the donor's conduct calls into question the interest, respect and/or reputation of the gallery."

"You make the best decisions you can in the current climate when the gift is made," said Ottawa-based Colby-Stothart.

In 2004, Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum received a one-time donation from the Sackler Foundation during its extensive renovation period. In recognition of the gift, it named its library and archives space the Sackler Reading Room. The ROM has not received any further financial support from the foundation since, according to a spokesperson. (Royal Ontario Museum)

What the Sackler controversy underlines, she said, is that institutions should "have the ability to take corrective action" regarding donations. She points out the National Gallery always includes an "off-ramp, both for the donor and for the beneficiary."

"Certainly every foundation in Canada is going to be looking at its policies, making sure that this conversation happens in their boardrooms."

'Starved for donations and support'

Belinda Chun, founder of Gallery House in Toronto, describes the Sackler controversy as a wake-up call.

Staff working in fundraising departments all have their own moral and ethical compass, she said, but it also comes back to the senior management.

"It varies from one organization to another, in terms of what kind of ethical rules that they abide by."

What's happening with the Sackler family's donations is a wake-up call, says Gallery House founder Belinda Chun, who sees the current wave of increased scrutiny and concern about ethics as a positive development. (CBC)

Chun has worked in development and fundraising at major Canadian arts institutions. She said the sector is "really starved for donations and support."

Ticket revenues and government funding are important, but many museums and galleries also rely heavily on private donations for everything from operations to programming to community outreach. As a result, small or mid-sized organizations "who desperately do need the funds" might face more difficulties turning down donations, she said. 

The current wave of scrutiny is a positive thing, she said, because arts organizations should be considering ethical concerns and regularly updating their policies that deal with financial gifts. 

'Where do we draw the line?'

But philanthropist and art collector Bruce Bailey wonders: How far are we as a society willing to take this current level of scrutiny?

He noted that it took significant outcry for famed Italian opera house La Scala to return a €3 million donation from Saudi Arabia, which was facing intense criticism for the killing of journalist Jamal  Khashoggi last fall. He also pointed out that despite many cultural bodies shunning tobacco companies, the British Museum still accepts funding from Japan Tobacco.

"It raises a whole series of questions — 'Is anybody, is any corporate money any good?'" said Bailey, who also serves as a member of the acquisition committee at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

Collector and arts patron Bruce Bailey, who is a member of the acquisitions committee at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, questions how far we would be willing to go in scrutinizing donors. 'Is anybody, is any corporate money any good?' (CBC)

Banks, for example, are major donors in the art world, he said. "Is it because the banks love art? No, they're trying to promote their private wealth management services, and people who can afford to buy expensive art are typically rich."

And banks have also been widely criticized for many reasons, he said, including keeping credit card interest rates high and overcharging their customers for investment fees. 

"Where do we draw the line?"

Canada's smaller pool

Given Canada's population, we have a smaller pool of major art philanthropists than other countries. There is a limited number of people whom arts organizations can target for significant donations, said art expert Stephen Ranger.

"If you took out any of the major donors in this country — and there's really only a handful of families who are our big donors — if you took any of those out, you would have a profound impact on our cultural landscape," said Ranger, vice-president of Waddington's Auctioneers and Appraisers.

"If we didn't have that money, we [wouldn't] have half of the amazing cultural institutions, small and large, that we have here." 

'We should be encouraging people to give generously' to all of our cultural institutions, says art expert Stephen Ranger, vice-president of Waddington's Auctioneers and Appraisers. (Nigel Hunt/CBC)

While Ranger thinks arts institutions will be considering donors more carefully going forward, he also believes that Canada needs more arts philanthropy — at all levels.

"We should be encouraging people to give generously because the governments don't have either the will or the resources to do so," he said. "And I think it's incumbent on us to support our cultural institutions — whether it's our symphonies, whether it's our art galleries, whether it's our local galleries.

"I think we need to be doing that and we need to be doing it more."

With files from Nigel Hunt, Deana Sumanac-Johnson and The Associated Press