Museums: Should they reject ‘dirty money’?

John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, John Paul Getty—there’s a long list of super-rich capitalists who used philanthropy to “wash blood” off their billions, said Kelsey Piper in Vox.com. But is the money of the Sackler family of Purdue Pharma so bloody that museums, hospitals, and universities should refuse to accept it? The Sacklers amassed an estimated $13 billion fortune partly by introducing and heavily pushing the opioid painkiller OxyContin on the U.S. and the world. Over the years, the Sackler family has given hundreds of millions to art museums, hospitals, and universities. Now, with the opioid epidemic still raging, activists have staged “die-ins” and angry protests at London’s National Portrait Gallery and New York City’s Guggenheim Museum and Metropolitan Museum of Art, bearing such signs as “200 dead each day.” The Tate galleries in London and the Guggenheim have announced they won’t accept any more Sackler money, but for activists, that’s not enough. They want the Sackler name stripped from its honored place on the walls of dozens of institutions.

The Sacklers really are a special case, said Benjamin Soskis in The Washington Post. The family essentially created the opioid epidemic by “knowingly and aggressively” flooding the country with opioid painkillers, while deceiving doctors and patients about their highly addictive nature. Eight family members now face criminal investigations or lawsuits. The Sacklers are seen as “the embodiment of corporate avarice, relentlessly pursuing profit” even as millions became addicted and more than 200,000 died of overdoses. Actually, this “critical reckoning” is bigger than the Sacklers, said Rachel Leah in Salon .com. In New York, an artist “withdrew from an exhibition at the Whitney in protest” over vice chair Warren Kanders, whose company made tear gas used to disperse migrants at the U.S. border. And museums who took donations from the Saudis faced blowback after the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

If museums boycott all “dirty money,” said Hugh Eakin in The Washington Post, they may close. In America, “government support has dwindled to about 3 percent of the estimated $5 billion spent on the arts every year.” And it’s not as if museums make it back on patrons. “Museums lose money on visitors,” receiving an average of $13 from each, while spending $63 per visitor. Without billionaires, museums can’t exist. Something’s got to give—either our ethical standards or “our cultural ambitions.”