The NPG “not to proceed” with a £1m Sackler Trust donation

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London’s National Portrait Gallery is no longer taking a £1m gift from the Sackler Trust, amid growing controversy over the trust’s links to Purdue Pharma – makers of the OxyContin prescription painkiller which has been linked to the opioid crisis.

The £1m gift was to support the gallery’s Inspiring People initiative, a £35.5m project which would see the biggest-ever building development of the gallery since it opened in 1896. The NPG has stated that it has jointly agreed not to proceed with the gift with the Sackler Trust, and has issued two statements.

“The Sackler Trust has supported institutions playing crucial roles in health, education, science and the arts for almost half a century and we were pleased to have the opportunity to offer a new gift to support the National Portrait Gallery,” reads the first statement, from a Sackler Trust spokesperson. “The giving philosophy of the family has always been to actively support institutions while never getting in the way of their mission. 

“It has become evident that recent reporting of allegations made against Sackler family members may cause this new donation to deflect the National Portrait Gallery from its important work. The allegations against family members are vigorously denied, but to avoid being a distraction for the NPG, we have decided not to proceed at this time with the donation. We continue to believe strongly in the gallery and the wonderful work it does.” 

“As chair of the National Portrait Gallery, I acknowledge the generosity of the Sackler Family and their support of the arts over the years,” reads the statement from David Ross, chair of National Portrait Gallery. “We understand and support their decision not to proceed at this time with the donation to the Gallery.” 

A spokesperson for the National Portrait Gallery added: “We fully respect and support the Sackler family’s decision.” 

The Sackler family fortune was made by Arthur, Mortimer and Raymond, who have all passed away; OxyContin is made by the US company Purdue Pharma, which is primarily owned by the family of Mortimer and Raymond Sackler. Arthur’s daughter Elizabeth Sackler has said that her side of the family has never benefitted from sales of OxyContin, a drug brought out after her father’s death in 1987.

Purdue Pharma was fined in the US for marketing OxyContin “with intent to defraud or mislead” regulators in 2007, and recent lawsuits have also named members of the family that benefit from the pharmaceutical company. In America the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about 400,000 people have died of overdoses in which prescription or illicit opioids were implicated since the year 2000.

Institutions supported by the Sackler Trust and by the Dr Mortimer and Theresa Sackler Foundation are now coming under criticism for accepting donations from the family. Photographer Nan Goldin, for example, has protested with scores of others in New York’s Metropolitan Museum and Guggenheim in the last two months, and threatened to pull out of a proposed solo show at London’s NPG if it accepted the Sackler cash. 

“What is the museum for? Art is transcendent and that makes it very, very dirty if they take the money; it’s failing the whole idea of a museum as a place to show art,” she told The Guardian in a story on her discussions with the NPG, published on 17 February. 

According to The Guardian story, Goldin began her campaign against the Sacklers after recovering from an addition to powerful prescription painkillers; in 2014, she was prescribed OxyContin for tendonitis in her left wrist. Goldin is calling for arts institutions in the US and Britain to refuse further Sackler donations, arguing that the family should instead start paying for treament and rehabilitation for opioid addicts. 

Proposed North Façade entrance and forecourt in the Inspiring People redevelopment. Jamie Fobert Architects / image by Forbes Massie Studio

The Sackler family is a key donor to many arts institutions in the UK, including the Royal Opera House, National Gallery, National Theatre, Shakespeare’s Globe, the Royal Ballet School, Tate, Old Vic and the Royal College of Art, the Serpentine, Royal Court, Museum of London, Dulwich Picture Gallery, Design Museum, and the Courtauld. The V&A Museum has a £2m entrance courtyard named after the donors.

According to The Art Newspaper, the NPG trustees set up an Ethics Committee last year, comprising two trustees and one outside member, to examine any potentially questionable donations for Inspiring People. During the winter Nicholas Cullinan, the NPG’s director, and his development team compiled a report on the Sackler Trust grant, which was submitted to the Ethics Committee and considered by them on 27 February, and resulted in the mutual decision that the grant offer should be withdrawn. The NPG’s trustees were informed on 13 March.

The NPG launched the latest details of its Inspiring People redevelopment in January, when it stated it had raised £27.4m of its £35.5m fundraising target, including £9.4m from the Heritage Lottery Fund. The gallery was aiming to reach its target of £35.5m by spring 2019, in order to complete the project by 2023. An application for planning and listed building consent was submitted in January 2019 and building work is scheduled to start in summer 2020.

The NPG is currently hosting an exhibition of work by Martin Parr, and is staging a large retrospective of work by Cindy Sherman from 27 June – 15 September, 2019. The institution is also known in photography circles for its Photographic Portrait Prize, which has been sponsored by law firm Taylor Wessing for the last 11 years.

Diane Smyth

Diane Smyth is a freelance journalist who contributes to publications such as The Guardian, The Observer, The FT Weekend Magazine, Creative Review, The Calvert Journal, Aperture, FOAM, IMA, Aesthetica and Apollo Magazine. Prior to going freelance, she wrote and edited at BJP for 15 years. She has also curated exhibitions for institutions such as The Photographers Gallery and Lianzhou Foto Festival. You can follow her on instagram @dismy