Museums confront the source of their money

Some cultural institutions still have a conscience, or at least a heightened appreciation for public relations.

Take New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. For years, it’s been feeding at the trough of the Sackler family, who have been enriched in part by fueling the opioid epidemic by pushing their highly addictive Oxycontin.

Last month, the New York Times revealed that the family’s company — Purdue Pharma — not only had a plan to expand the use of the drug, but planned to make more money by marketing a drug designed to cure the addiction their product caused.

With the Met’s decision to wean itself off Sackler money, the Times says it will lead to museums being more careful about where their money comes from.

The increased scrutiny on donors is forcing museums to navigate moral quandaries and a political climate where a protest can go viral in a matter of hours. At the same time, they must mollify the wealthy benefactors who help keep the lights on and would rather not see donations open them up to public examination.

“There really aren’t that many people who are giving to art and giving to museums; in fact it’s a very small club,” said Tom Eccles, executive director of the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College. “So we have to be a little careful what we wish for here.”

There is also the difficult question of where to draw a line. What sort of behavior is found inexcusable?

“We are not a partisan organization; we are not a political organization, so we don’t have a litmus test for whom we take gifts from based on policies or politics,” said Weiss of the Met. “If there are people who want to support us, for the most part we are delighted.

The Sackler family issued a statement saying it understands the Met’s decision.

  • Guest

    There is also the difficult question of where to draw a line. What sort of behavior is found inexcusable?

    VERY relevant question.

    • At the moment, I think that line is set at “getting people addicted to narcotics and destroying entire communities as well as families.”

      That seems like a good place for it at the moment.

    • Brian Simon

      “What sort of behavior is found inexcusable?”

      My cynical side would say, “not much.” Certainly in the political spectrum, there seems to be a willingness for the ends to justify the means. Looking at the “me too” movement, once the excitement blows over, people go back about their business.

      I expect that if the Sacklers lay low for a while, they’ll be back on the major donor lists in a couple years. Money talks & arts organizations can’t always afford to be too selective.