As It Happens

Removing Sackler name from Met may only be symbolic, says writer — but it will 'sting'

A journalist who has been following the family accused of fueling the opioid crisis says removing the Sackler name from seven Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibits is mostly a symbolic gesture.  

Name of family behind OxyContin has been removed from seven exhibits at the New York museum

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is dropping the Sackler name from seven exhibition spaces amid growing outrage over the family's role in the opioid crisis. (Seth Wenig/The Associated Press)

Story Transcript

A journalist who has been following the family accused of fuelling the opioid crisis says removing the Sackler name from seven Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibits may sting, but it falls short of accountability. 

The New York museum and the Sackler family jointly announced on Thursday that they would remove the name from seven exhibits, including the wing that houses the Temple of Dendur. The wing is named after brothers Arthur, Mortimer and Raymond Sackler, who donated $3.5 million US for it in the 1970s. Two exhibits still carry the Sackler name. 

The Sacklers founded Purdue Pharma, which developed the highly addictive and over-prescribed opioid OxyContin. 

Patrick Radden Keefe is a staff writer for The New Yorker and author of the book, Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty. He spoke with As It Happens Carol Off about where this latest development leaves the family. 

The Met had announced a couple of years ago that it wouldn't accept gifts from the Sackler family anymore. Why is this such a huge development in your mind?

What you've seen over the last few years is a kind of gradual distancing in stages that a number of institutions — arts institutions [and] universities — have taken from the Sacklers.

The first phase was when you saw a great many museums and universities say: We will no longer accept future funds from the Sacklers, but we've got the name on the wall.

And now you're starting to see some of these institutions taking the name down. Many universities and museums have been watching the Met to see how it will handle this because it's such a prominent institution and one with a very close history with the Sacklers. And so the fact that the Met took this quite dramatic step of taking the name down, not just refusing future money, I think may end up being a bellwether that other institutions will look to.

What do you make of the fact that there are some spaces that will continue to have a Sackler name on them? There is the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in the Asian wing and then the Marietta Lutze Sackler Gallery in the modern and contemporary wing of the Met. So why are they remaining?

Originally there were three Sackler brothers: Arthur, Mortimer and Raymond. And they owned a company called Purdue, which is the company that's gotten into all this trouble related to OxyContin.

Arthur Sackler was a pioneer of medical advertising, and he developed a lot of the deceptive techniques that were used to sell and market OxyContin in the 1990s. But Arthur Sackler died before the introduction of the drug, and his heirs sold their share in the company.

So there are some people who believe that Arthur Sackler, you know, should not be held culpable in the same way because he died before the drug was introduced. I would argue that that doesn't make him pure as the driven snow necessarily, but it's indisputable that Arthur Sackler died in the 1980s before OxyContin ever hit the market.

New Yorker writer and author Patrick Radden Keefe has written about the wealthy Sackler family and their connection to the creation of OxyContin in his book, Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty. (Philip Montgomery Photography; Bond Street Books)

Do you think that this is, at the end of the day, even this withdrawal of the Sackler name and the Sacklers agreeing to it, another kind of reputation management?

On the contrary. I mean, I think in this instance, this is a family that was very, very invested in a kind of branding project involving the family name for decades and gave hundreds of millions of dollars to emblazon the name on elite institutions.

And so, you know, one of the questions that has come up is, is this accountability? And I would say it's something far short of accountability. It's a purely symbolic gesture, but one that, I think, when it comes to this particular family has some sting.

The Met's announcement includes a statement from the Sackler family who say: "Our families have always strongly supported the Met, and we believe this to be in the best interest of the museum and the important mission that it serves." And then the museum's CEO says this is "a gracious gesture by the Sacklers." What do you make of that?

I know that some people have looked at that statement from the Met and thought that it seemed a little bit too nice to the Sacklers, given the totality of the circumstances. But I think that we must understand these are complicated and legally fraught situations and sometimes a tone of non-disparagement may be the price of admission for this sort of thing.

Do you think it's not disparaging, not because of the Sacklers, [but] because of concerns as to whether other donors will be reluctant to give to the Met or anybody else after what's happened in this instance?

That could be the case. I mean, I did chuckle, you know, in the Sacklers' statement yesterday.

They said: We want to pass the torch to some new donor who will come along and support the Met. So the subtext there seems to me to be that one of the premier public spaces in New York City is now available to purchase the naming rights once again.

Written by Sarah Jackson with files from Associated Press. Produced by Chloe-Shantz Hilkes. 

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