This week brought two wins for the drug policy advocates and pharma activists campaigning for the removal of the name of the Sackler family, owners of the opioid manufacturer Purdue Pharma, from the buildings of art and cultural institutions. Today, December 5, Tufts University in Boston announced that it removed the Sackler name from five of its facilities and programs, and yesterday, the Smithsonian in Washington, DC said it “rebranded” its Asian Arts galleries, the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, as the National Museum of Asian Art.
Tufts removed the Sackler name from its school of medicine but it will not return unspent donations it had received from the Sacklers. The university has received about $15 million in donations from the family since 1980. Less of half of these funds exist in the form of endowed funds that will be used for research in cancer and epilepsy, officials at Tuft said in a statement provided to the New York Times. The university also said that it will not rescind an honorary degree it awarded to Raymond R. Sackler in 2013, four years before his death.
Tufts School of Medicine was named after Arthur Sackler in 1983 after he made a donation, whereas other members of the family have been donating to the university since 1980. Arthur Sackler died in 1987, almost a decade before the release of OxyContin, while his brothers Raymond and Mortimer have been explicitly implicated in the opioid epidemic and were recently revealed to have played a greater role in the misleading marketing of the drug as part of an ongoing court case led by the attorney general of Massachusetts. The Sackler family is well known for its philanthropy of the arts and education.
“Our students find it objectionable to walk into a building that says Sackler on it when they come in here to get their medical education,” Dr. Harris A. Berman, the dean of the Tufts University School of Medicine, told the New York Times. “They feel the names are incongruous with the mission of the school and what we’re trying to teach them, since the name has become synonymous with the opioid epidemic,” he continued. “I think the significance is symbolic, but it’s an important symbolic move.”
In a phone conversation with Hyperallergic, artist Nan Goldin, frontwoman and founder of the group PAIN Sackler, which has been leading the struggle for removing the Sackler name from museums and universities, called Tuft’s university’s decision “excellent,” saying she hopes “other schools follow through.” Since its launch in 2017, PAIN Sackler has held protests at institutions including the Guggenheim Museum, Metropolitan Museum, and Louvre to demand they divest from the billionaire family. In 2019, the Met, Guggenheim, London’s National Gallery, Tate, Louvre, and American Museum of Natural History have all taken steps to distance their connections to the Sacklers to varying degrees.
“I think that student pressure had a lot to do with the decision,” Goldin said. “We have heard from the students that we work with at New York University and Harvard how much they suffer from having that name of their diplomas going forward in the world.”
Daniel S. Connolly, a representative of the deceased Raymond and Mortimer Sackler, denounced Tuft University’s decision, saying that it’s “particularly disturbing and intellectually dishonest” to “remove the name of a donor who made gifts in good faith starting almost forty years ago.”
Connolly added that an independent review of the family’s relationship with Tufts, commissioned by the school, concluded that “Purdue and the Sackler family conducted themselves properly.”
In February of this year, the Tufts university commissioned former US Attorney for Massachusetts Donald K. Stern as an independent fact-finder to assess its past relationships with Purdue Pharma. The Report and Recommendations Concerning the Relationship of the Sackler Family and Purdue Pharma with Tufts University, released today, determined that the funds received by Tufts from the Sacklers and Purdue “were predominately used in areas unrelated to opioids and pain management.”
Goldin disputes this, saying that was wrongdoing in the relationship between the Sacklers and Tufts. “[Tufts] had a pain research clinic that was benefiting Purdue,” she said. “They were treating Purdue with favors,” she claims, adding that an employee of the company was teaching at the research center.
A spokesperson with Tufts University provided Hyperallergic with a statement saying that, “The investigation found no wrongdoing by the university or its personnel, no violations of university policy, and no evidence of any arrangements by which Purdue or the Sacklers agreed to fund academic programs or research in exchange for certain outcomes or curriculum.”
The statement continued, “In particular, the report did not find that there was any material influence by Purdue or the Sacklers on the University’s Masters in Pain Research and Education Policy program (‘PREP’) which was funded from 1998-2007 by substantial donations from Purdue Pharma.”
However, Tufts University acknowledges that Purdue may have had undue influence on its facilities. “While there was no evidence found to support that Purdue and the Sacklers influenced the university’s curriculum or research, Attorney Stern did find instances of conduct which could have directly or indirectly led to influence and other conduct that suggest the appearance of influence,” the statement said. “However, he determined the conduct did not materially affect the academic program or research or compromise academic integrity.”
Meanwhile, the Smithsonian said it is rebranding the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery to clarify the missions of these joint galleries, which are often referred to as the Freer|Sackler. From now on, they will be called the National Museum of Asian Art. According to the Washington Post, museum officials say the decision has nothing to do with the protests against the Sacklers.
In July, Lonnie G. Bunch, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, rejected Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley’s request to remove the Sackler name from the Asian Art galleries. Bunch said at the time that the Smithsonian was legally bound to maintain the name of Arthur M. Sackler in perpetuity. While the Sackler name is still engraved on the museum’s facade, a new logo for the galleries reduces the Freer and Sackler names to small type.
“The shift toward a unified brand is not a shift away from the galleries’ names,” a spokesperson with the Smithsonian wrote to Hyperallergic in an email. “Both museum’s individual names remain unchanged and intact. The new tagline National Museum of Asian Art, helps clarify to visitors that they can expect to see Asian Art collections during their visit.”
“They are responding to public pressure,” Goldin told Hyperallergic of the museum’s decision, recalling a PAIN Sackler protest outside the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in 2018. “It’s not exactly as far as we would hope but it’s a good sign,” she said. “It’s gratifying that at least they’ve made the dominant name different than the Sackler.”
“I think it’s necessary that in this day and age universities and museums vet their donors much more carefully because people are watching now where this toxic philanthropy is coming from,” Goldin added. “I commend Tufts University emphatically, and I commend the Smithsonian half-heartedly.”