Those visiting the Guggenheim and the Metropolitan Museum of Art this past weekend may have had a brush with one of contemporary art’s most definitive figures in person—just not in the way they might have expected. On the steps of the Met and within the Guggenheim itself, photographer Nan Goldin led the opioid crisis activist group that she founded, P.A.I.N. Sackler, in several protests. The intention was to call out the two New York City institutions for their acceptance of donations from the Sacklers, the family that owns Purdue Pharma, developers of the highly addictive painkiller OxyContin.
On Saturday, the group staged a die-in inside the Guggenheim, which has an art education center named after the Sacklers and has reportedly received $2.49 million from the Mortimer D. Sackler Foundation. There, activists unveiled banners along the circular banisters—they read: “400,000 DEAD” and “TAKE DOWN THEIR NAME.” From high above, they also sprinkled hundreds of pieces of paper, resembling OxyContin prescriptions signed by and featuring four different quotes attributed to Richard Sackler, Purdue’s former president. One of the quotes, in which Sackler says to “hammer on abusers in every way possible,” is part of a recent Massachusetts court filing that suggests the family had more to do with OxyContin’s relentless marketing than they have long contended.
— Colin Moynihan (@ColinRMoynihan) February 10, 2019
Afterwards, protesters marched south on Fifth Avenue to the Metropolitan Museum, chanting along the way. (“Shame on Sackler,” was one chant, as ArtNews reports.)
Five years ago, Goldin was prescribed OxyContin for tendonitis in her left wrist. She became addicted to the painkiller, after taking it as instructed. “I survived the opioid crisis. I narrowly escaped,” she writes on the group’s website. “I went from the darkness and ran full speed into The World. I was isolated, but I realized I wasn’t alone.”
Goldin went to rehab for two and a half months, describing her struggle in a piece for Artforum. Afterwards, she began looking more into the roots of OxyContin, and how it had been marketed. She then realized that the drug was tied to the Sacklers, a name that’s everywhere in the art world and beyond. The escalator at the Tate Modern, in London, is named for the family. Columbia has the Sackler Institute for Developmental Psychobiology. And, as Esquire noted in a 2017 investigative report about the opioid empire, even a species of pink rose is named after the Sacklers.
In March 2018, P.A.I.N. Sackler held their first demonstration at the Met’s Temple of Dendur, located within a wing of the museum named after the Sacklers. (In the 70s, Dr. Arthur Sackler, who built the family fortune through medical advertising, pledged $3.5 million for the wing, the Times reports.) There, they held a die-in, lying among pill bottles that they’d strewn throughout the space. On Saturday, Goldin announced the latest Met demonstration via Instagram. “We’ve been knocking on their doors for a year and not a single museum has denounced the Sacklers, taken down their name, or publicly refused their funding,” she wrote. “Time’s up.”
Last month, the Met said in a statement that it was currently reevaluating future gift acceptance. “The Sackler family has been connected with The Met for more than a half century,” said Daniel Weiss, the museum’s president and chief executive. “The family is a large extended group and their support of The Met began decades before the opioid crisis. The Met is currently engaging in a further review of our detailed gift acceptance policies, and we will have more to report in due course.”
The Guggenheim and the Met did not immediately reply to a request for comment.