From our vantage point, lying on the floor, watching the protest unfold was almost hypnotic. Thousands of white paper slips—representing OxyContin scripts—floated slowly down through the grand white atrium of the Guggenheim Museum, while a small group of us stretched out on the ground, representing a tiny fraction of those who have died from the drug.
To my right lay Nan Goldin, the celebrated artist who launched our activist group, Prescription Addiction Intervention Now (P.A.I.N.), after struggling with opioid addiction for years and nearly losing her life to an overdose. Next to her was Robert Suarez, a leading harm reduction advocate with the group Voices of Community Activists and Leaders (VOCAL-NY), whose mother died in his arms as a consequence of her opioid dependency. White-coated medical students from New York University lay off to the side, along with people living in recovery from substance-use disorders. Above us, holding bright red banners along the white spiral ramps of the Frank Lloyd Wright building, were others who have experienced the crisis up close: a group of mothers whose children died from overdose, friends and family of people struggling with addiction, organizers who have been fighting to establish the country’s first legal safe injection facilities.
We had taken over the museum to demand that it refuse future funding from the Sackler family, the pharmaceutical clan that has made billions in profit from OxyContin sales, and remove signs that honor their name. The mock prescriptions alluded to the recent disclosure of Richard Sackler’s chilling 1996 boast that “the launch of OxyContin tablets will be followed by a blizzard of prescriptions that will bury the competition.” Our banners captured our message succinctly: “400,000 DEAD,” read one, summarizing the staggering losses caused by the family’s ghoulish path to wealth. “TAKE DOWN THEIR NAME.”
Donna Murch writes powerfully of the “space of white absolution that enabled the profitable mass-marketing of licit pharmaceuticals” in recent decades, even as black and brown Americans were being incarcerated en masse for selling or using substances whose difference from prescription medicines “has more to do with race, class, and differential application of state power than pharmacology.”
For our group, on that evening this past February, that “space of white absolution” was no metaphor. The Guggenheim is one of many museums that have quite literally provided space for the Sackler family to whitewash their many misdeeds and cast themselves as beneficent figures despite their direct role in destroying so many lives. Just beneath the floor where we held our die-in is the Sackler Center for Arts Education, one of many prestigious facilities named after the family.
A year into her recovery, Goldin published a collection of photographs in Artforum that juxtaposed her own experience of OxyContin addiction with the laudatory Sackler signage that graces so many eminent institutions, from the monumental Sackler Wing at New York’s Metropolitan Museum to the porcelain-tiled Sackler Courtyard at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. “They have washed their blood money through the halls of museums and universities around the world,” she wrote. Our protest at the Guggenheim was our fourth major museum disruption to hold the Sackler family accountable, after similar actions at the Met, the Smithsonian, and the Harvard Art Museums.
As we undertook these actions, we privately heard many objections from museum officials: that cultural institutions are starved for adequate funding, that all great fortunes derive from unsavory sources, that museums would go bankrupt if they were required to vet every gift to meet the moral standards of the day. The naming agreements, we have been told, were made in perpetuity and are set in stone. Our actions came as numerous museums are facing protest and public critique for ties to controversial benefactors. Among them are the Whitney Museum, whose vice chairman, Warren Kanders, owns the tear-gas manufacturer Safariland, described by scholar Anna Feigenbaum as a “one-stop shop” for protest repression, and the Metropolitan Museum, whose billionaire patron David H. Koch is a leading climate-change accelerator and denier.
The history of philanthropy is of course a history of burnishing the reputations of the very rich, giving a high-culture gloss to tawdry accumulation and conferring social capital on those with financial capital. “Think of it, ye millionaires of many markets,” an original trustee of the Met, Joseph Choate, famously declared in 1880, “what glory may yet be yours, if you only listen to our advice, to convert pork into porcelain, grain and produce into priceless pottery, the rude ores of commerce into sculptured marble.” In the case of the Sacklers, though, it was not pork that was converted first into profit and then into porcelain, but human autonomy, dignity, and life, on an almost unfathomable scale. The way that this family has for so long escaped any real consequences for their direct role in hundreds of thousands of deaths—even as hundreds of thousands of Americans, disproportionately black and brown, are caged behind bars for nonviolent drug-related offenses—epitomizes the divisions and paradoxes that Murch explores. The racialized logic of the War on Drugs and the opioid crisis has produced outlandish punishment for some, outlandish indemnity for others.
This is the larger context in which the Sacklers managed, until very recently, to evade legal prosecution for their actions and still find their name honored by some of the world’s most eminent cultural institutions, despite deliberately deceiving doctors about the strength and addictive potential of their profitable drug. The family’s cynical path to prestige embodies a larger and very toxic culture of impunity in our time that has gone hand in hand with growing concentrations of wealth and power. As the extreme inequality of this era takes ever more oligarchic and authoritarian forms, the carte blanche long given to the Sacklers calls to mind the ways that Donald Trump has escaped consequences for boasting of sexual assault or calling neo-Nazis “very fine people.” This is a time of craven capitulation to bad-acting billionaires, and the fact that leading arts institutions took steps to distance themselves from the Sacklers only after they faced high-profile protest recalls the gutless way so many political figures have normalized the presidency of a man who lied to the public more than 8,000 times in his first 2 years in office. The story of the Sacklers exemplifies a pervasive pattern of exoneration for those at the top of economic, racial, and gendered hierarchies, which the #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo movements have both worked to highlight and challenge.
From an organizer’s point of view, the processes of racial capitalism that Murch outlines are so massive that they can be difficult to address head-on. But it is precisely because systems of power reinforce each other in complex and nuanced ways that an oblique approach can at times have broad impact. It is because there are cultural logics to these systems that challenges on cultural and symbolic fronts can spark wider change. The fight to take down the Sackler name is similar, in this regard, to campaigns by anti-racist organizers to take down Confederate monuments: removing these symbols does not correct the evils they celebrate, but allowing them to stand is so culturally corrosive that it impedes any fuller reckoning.
In itself, halting Sackler funding and removing the Sackler name from cultural institutions will not expropriate the family’s wealth and reallocate it to treatment and harm reduction or lead to any direct legal consequences. On its own, it certainly will not begin to solve the opioid crisis or address the deeper structures of racial capitalism that have allowed Big Pharma to profit so mightily and blamelessly from mass addiction. Even as P.A.I.N. has focused most strongly on seeking change from museums and cultural institutions, we have worked closely with groups promoting other transformative solutions: helping VOCAL-NY set up a mock safe injection site right on the busy avenue in front of New York governor Andrew Cuomo’s Manhattan office as part of a campaign to seek approval for these lifesaving interventions, and supporting the introduction of the CARE Act, a measure that would allocate billions to those on the frontlines of the opioid crisis to implement compassionate treatment on a massive scale.
As we lay there on the ground floor of the Guggenheim during our disruption, we were extending a larger invitation: to imagine what might happen if the spaces of white absolution were transformed into spaces of accountability, if cultural institutions showed the courage to stand up for the human values they ostensibly champion. We had no way of knowing that within six weeks of our protest, the Guggenheim would refuse all future gifts from the Sacklers, following close on the heels of similar moves by the National Portrait Gallery in London and the Tate museums. Or that eight members of the family would—for the first time—be personally sued in a massive legal action by hundreds of cities, counties, and Native American tribes. Or that the Sacklers would suspend all of their philanthropy in the United Kingdom. We cannot and do not take credit for all these developments; whatever impact our direct actions had, they channeled and amplified the already existing outrage of millions and built on much brilliant work by journalists, advocates, and attorneys. But accountability, we learned, can have its own momentum, with culture as the catalyst.
The protests have continued, and more dominoes have toppled. Most recently, just a fortnight after P.A.I.N. staged a protest action with the French group Association AIDES in front of the Louvre Museum, the Louvre became the first major institution to remove the Sackler name from its walls. It will surely not be the last. And in an era when the unchecked crimes of billionaires pose existential threats to everything from representative democracy to planetary survival, every blow against impunity is a victory to treasure. When going up against those with vast wealth and power but no shame, whether that’s the Sackler family or the dangerous billionaire in the White House, the most powerful path to accountability may be an indirect one. It is, after all, the people and institutions who legitimize monstrous behavior that must change before the plutocrats themselves will ever fall.