British gallery rejects fund by US family accused of role in opioid crisis

The National Portrait Gallery became the first institution to refuse a donation by the Sackler family

An exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in central London. AFP
An exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in central London. AFP

Britain’s National Portrait Gallery dropped a £1 million (Dh4.85m) grant because of the donor’s alleged connection to the deadly US opioid crisis.

In a move hailed by campaigners as a milestone victory in the battle over the ethics of arts funding, the gallery became the first institution to refuse a fund by the Sackler family.

The family's pharmaceutical company – Purdue Pharma LP – makes the highly addictive prescription painkiller OxyContin.

It is currently facing a number of lawsuits over the family's alleged role in the opioid crisis. This began in 1990 with a rapid increase in the use of opioid drugs that led to a dramatic increase in overdose deaths – 49,000 in the US in 2017 alone.

The Sacklers vigorously denied the allegations, but said the donation had been dropped to avoid creating a “distraction” for the gallery.

The decision was presented as mutual, but it was seen by some observers as a major blow to the family’s status as leading philanthropists and a victory for American artist Nan Goldin, who is leading a campaign against the family.

Ms Goldin, an art photographer, became addicted to OxyContin after being prescribed the drug.

“They did the right thing,” she told British newspaper The Guardian about the National Portrait Gallery’s decision. “I hope there is a domino effect now; there needs to be.

“This raises the question of whether the gallery will now apply the same standards to its BP sponsorship deal or continue to promote a fossil fuel company in the midst of a climate crisis,” she said.

“Waved through with minimal scrutiny in the past, BP sponsorship now – like the Sackler donation – looks ethically untenable.”

The Sackler family was estimated by Forbes to be the 19th richest family in the US, with capital of $13 billion (Dh47.74bn).

The Sackler Trust said they “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”.

“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 National Portrait Gallery chair, David Ross, said: “I acknowledge the generosity of the Sackler family and their support of the arts over the years. We understand and support their decision not to proceed at this time with the donation to the gallery.”

Updated: March 20, 2019 03:45 PM


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