2017-12-01 06:54:02
Gifts Tied to Opioid Sales Invite a Question: Should Museums Vet Donors?

Visitors to the Victoria and Albert Museum’s white porcelain plaza in London commonly walk past a wall that says “The Sackler Courtyard.” About a mile away, the words “Serpentine Sackler Gallery” appear above a colonnade running along the front of a former gunpowder repository turned art space.

And across the Atlantic, the family’s name is attached to centers and programs at institutions like the Dia Arts Foundation, the Guggenheim and the American Museum of National History.

Since the 1970s, the Sackler family has donated millions of dollars to prominent museums and cultural institutions. The name has become nearly synonymous with the arts.

But two recent magazine articles, in The New Yorker and Esquire, have highlighted several family members’ connection to something else: OxyContin, a powerful painkilling narcotic that public officials say is among the most common drugs involved in prescription opioid overdose deaths.

The reports focused on members of the Sackler clan who can trace part of their fortunes to Purdue Pharma, the privately held company that produces the drug. In 2007, the parent company of Purdue pleaded guilty to a federal felony charge of misbranding OxyContin with the intent to defraud or mislead. (The Sacklers personally were not accused of wrongdoing.) Now Purdue faces new lawsuits by state authorities as well as another federal investigation.

But few institutions seem concerned that the money they have received may be tied, in some way, to a family fortune partly built on the sale of opioids.

The New York Times surveyed 21 cultural organizations listed on tax forms as having received significant sums from foundations run by two Sackler brothers who led Purdue. Several, including the Guggenheim, declined to comment; others, like the Brooklyn Museum, ignored questions. None indicated that they would return donations or refuse them in the future.

“We regularly assess our funding activities to ensure best practice,” wrote Zoë Franklin, a spokeswoman for the Victoria and Albert Museum, which was listed as receiving about $13.1 million from the Dr. Mortimer and Theresa Sackler Foundation in 2012. “The Sackler family continue to be an important and valuable donor to the V & A and we are grateful for their ongoing support.”

To what degree are cultural institutions responsible for vetting every dollar they receive? Can financially strapped arts organizations be picky about a patron’s source of wealth, and if so, where should they draw the line? At a donor who engages in unlawful or unethical behavior? Or whose conduct is at odds with the institution’s goals?

The issue stretches back to the days of Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick and the Rockefellers, cultural philanthropists whose sources of income were characterized at some point as monopolistic, or anti-union or harmful to the environment.

In 2015, to name a more recent example, some critics called for museums of science and natural history to cut ties with fossil fuel companies and philanthropists like David H. Koch, whose foundation has financed groups that went on to oppose legislation related to climate change or refer to “global warming hysteria.” (When Mr. Koch stepped down from the American Museum of Natural History’s board the following year, the museum said the decision was not prompted by the protests.)

But museums have shown an unwillingness to return money or end a philanthropic relationship.

“Historically, museum audiences have not shown evidence of being terribly concerned about sources of income for museums,” said Susie Wilkening, a museum consultant in Seattle. “Especially if there is no conflict between the mission of the museum and the philosophies or beliefs of the donor.”

In the case of the Sacklers, OxyContin’s ties to the opioid crisis have become a public relations blemish. But activists have not mustered campaigns against institutions that benefit from the Sacklers’ largess. And there appears to be no push in Congress for members who have received donations from Purdue to return that money.

The Times’ questions to the 21 institutions focused on money from five foundations that have been run by members of the Sackler family, including Mortimer and Raymond Sackler, two of the three Brooklyn-born physician brothers who transformed Purdue into a pharmaceutical giant. The two served as co-chief executives of Purdue before they died, and their foundations have given substantial sums to cultural and educational organizations since OxyContin hit the market in 1996. In some years, the Mortimer D. Sackler Foundation has listed Purdue Pharma as one of its sources of money.

Some of Mortimer and Raymond’s descendants have sat on the company’s board or held executive positions since the mid-90s. In response to inquiries by the Times, Purdue confirmed that Ilene Sackler Lefcourt, one of Mortimer’s daughters; Mortimer D.A. Sackler, one of his sons; and Theresa Elizabeth Sackler, his widow, are directors of the company’s board today. But the company did not say whether any other family members currently serve on the board and did not provide a requested list of those who did from 1995 to 2007.

(The shares of Arthur Sackler, the eldest brother and third owner of Purdue, were bought by Mortimer and Raymond at some point, according to The New Yorker. Arthur’s descendants have said they have not profited from the sale of OxyContin.)

In October, Purdue said that it was cooperating with a new federal investigation related to OxyContin. In response to lawsuits by New Jersey, Alaska and Washington, the company has vigorously denied allegations that it used deceptive marketing to boost sales of the drug.

Robert Josephson, a spokesman for the company, pointed to its efforts to stem the opioid epidemic — distributing prescription guidelines, developing abuse-deterrent painkillers and ensuring access to overdose-reversal medication — and noted that OxyContin has never had a large share of total opioid prescriptions. In an email, he added, “Many leading medical, scientific, cultural and educational institutions throughout the world have been beneficiaries of Sackler family philanthropy.”

Risa B. Heller, a spokeswoman for the families of Mortimer and Raymond Sackler, declined on their behalf to comment.

Andrew Ross, a professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University, said that donors sometimes give hefty amounts to institutions in an effort to shift attention from business practices that may strike some as unsavory.

Such donations have opened organizations to criticism. In the 1980s, for example, antismoking groups denounced the Joffrey Ballet and other institutions for accepting money from tobacco companies.

“That’s a risk museums take on by having these sorts of trustees and donors,” Professor Ross said. “They are supposed to have ethical values baked in, and because they trade in culture we expect different standards from them.”

But some in the arts world see the acceptance of donations not as an endorsement or political statement but simply as a way to support programming.

Reynold Levy, who was president of Lincoln Center for 13 years, said institutions would be unlikely to change the behavior of donors by rejecting their money. And, he added, declining donations from people who are acting lawfully could create a slippery slope of shifting standards that would do little to benefit an organization’s audience.

“For institutions to draw lines outside of the law, there would need to be a pretty heavy burden of persuasion to refuse a gift that would advance a meritorious mission,” he said, adding that at the same time “board members should feel free to raise these questions and issues.”

Of course, it might be uncomfortable to begin such conversations when donors are closely tied to an institution. Mortimer D.A. Sackler, for example, is a trustee of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, which was recorded as receiving $2.49 million from the Mortimer D. Sackler Foundation between 2003 and 2015. Ilene Sackler Lefcourt is an honorary trustee of the American Museum of Natural History, which was listed as receiving $1.7 million from the Mortimer D. Sackler Foundation between 2006 and 2013.

Anne Canty, a spokeswoman at the natural history museum, suggested that it needed time to take stock of the recent reporting on the Sacklers.

“Since this has all emerged very recently, we haven’t had sufficient time to fully absorb it so we don’t have any comment,” she wrote.