As a Wave of UK Museums Cut Ties With the Sackler Family, One Small London Gallery May Have Led the Way

The South London Gallery returned a £125,000 gift from the Sacklers last year.

South London Gallery, 2017. Photo by Andy Stagg.

Following news that the Tate and London’s National Portrait Gallery have dropped funding from members of the Sackler pharmaceutical dynasty, the Art Newspaper has reported that the much smaller South London Gallery actually led the way last year when it returned a £125,000 ($165,000) gift from the Sackler family, which is currently the target of a major new lawsuit brought by 500 US cities and Native American tribes affected by the opioid crisis. 

The South London Gallery, which expanded to a second site in a former firehouse last September, accepted the £125,000 grant from the Mortimer and Theresa Sackler Foundation to support its education center in 2016. But growing criticism of the Sackler’s links to the production of the prescription painkiller OxyContin began to concern the gallery’s director, Margot Heller.

Most of the Sackler family earned its vast wealth by producing the addictive drug through the pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma. The company is now embroiled in a number of lawsuits over its marketing of the drug, which has been linked to the deaths of around 100 people each day. The family “vigorously” denies the allegations against them.

Heller raised the issue with the gallery’s trustees, which include Frieze co-founder Matthew Slotover, and the board voted to return the money, reportedly because of the potential damage it could have done to the institution’s reputation. Its education center was eventually funded by other donors.

South London Gallery Fire Station, 2018. Photo by Dan Weill.

Earlier this week, other institutions started following suit. On Tuesday, the National Portrait Gallery announced that it would not proceed with a £1 million ($1.3 million) grant from the trust for its planned expansion. Yesterday, the Tate also announced it would no longer seek donations from the wing of the Sackler family associated with Purdue Pharma.

Martin Bailey, writing in the Art Newspaper, suspects that these moves were prompted by the South London Gallery’s earlier decision: “If the NPG had decided to accept the grant, it would have opened it up to criticism if it later emerged that a smaller and more vulnerable public gallery had returned the Sackler money.” Another contributing factor may have been the fact that the artist Nan Goldin, who has been actively campaigning against the Sacklers through her group P.A.I.N, warned the gallery that she would pull out of an exhibition slated for 2023 if it accepted the money.

It remains to be seen if other museums that have historically accepted money from the Sacklers will follow suit. Many are taking a softer stance, pointing out that they are not currently receiving Sackler funds, but not necessarily ruling them out in the future.

The Guggenheim Museum in New York said in a statement that “no contributions from the Sackler family have been received since 2015 and no additional gifts are planned.” The museum did not immediately respond to an email asking for clarification about whether this meant it would decline funding from the Sacklers in the future.

Similarly, a spokesperson for the British Museum, which is home to a Raymond and Beverly Sackler Wing, told artnet News that there are no existing pledges from Sackler family organizations regarding future projects.

The National Gallery, too, has a Sackler Room and has received at least £1 million from the Sackler Trust, which was founded by Theresa Sackler, who is named in a US civil lawsuit for her role in the pharmaceutical company started by her late husband, Mortimer Sackler, and his brother Raymond. The National Gallery confirmed that none of the funding for its new extension involves the trust, and that they are not in talks to receive any funding from it in the foreseeable future.

A spokeswoman for the Serpentine gallery, which has named a gallery after the family, confirmed that it does not currently receive funding from the trust and that there aren’t any funding applications in place.

London’s Royal College of Art, which received £2 million in gifts from the Sackler Trust in 2009 and 2016, and the V&A, where Theresa Sackler is a board member, both referred artnet News to their Gift Acceptance Policies but did not comment further on the matter. The V&A’s outpost in Dundee, Scotland, which received some £500,000 for its creation, said that it was not in talks to return the gift.

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