Nan Goldin. Photo by Francois Guillot / AFP / Getty Images
On Art

Bitter pills

Ethical values and financial necessity are not always perfectly compatible

In 2017, the photographer Nan Goldin launched an anti-opioid activist group called Prescription Addiction Intervention Now (Pain). It was aimed at the Sackler family, major arts philanthropists and owners of Purdue Pharma, which manufactures the addictive prescription pain medicine OxyContin. Pain’s mission statement was to force museums to reject donations from the Sacklers and for the family to use the money on addiction treatment programmes instead.

Goldin, herself a former OxyContin addict, and her supporters have waged a highly visible protest campaign at such institutions as the Guggenheim and the Met (where they threw pill bottles and staged a die-in) in New York. And they have scored some notable successes. In March this year, the National Portrait Gallery in London announced that it would not accept a £1 million donation from the Sackler Trust, and two days later the Tate, a long-term beneficiary, said it would no longer accept Sackler money.

In July, Pain had its biggest hit when the Louvre removed all mention of the Sacklers from the antiquities rooms that had borne their name since 1997. Jean-Luc Martinez, the president of the Louvre, claimed the move had nothing to do with Goldin’s campaign (she had protested outside the museum just weeks earlier), but because a 20-year naming agreement with the Sacklers had run its course. Martinez rather gave the game away when he couldn’t account for the fact that the agreement had ended two years previously and that, in its haste, the Louvre had covered the Sackler name on all its signs with sticky tape.

There is nothing new about protests at museum sponsorship. In the wake of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill in 2010 a roster of major British arts organisations came under pressure to sever links with BP, a major corporate sponsor. Protesters scaled the columns in front of the British Museum and flung molasses to simulate oil outside Tate Britain. In 2016 Tate announced it would not be renewing its sponsorship agreement with BP and last month the Royal Shakespeare Company followed suit. Semi-naked protesters have also just staged an oil-based stunt at the NPG.

Elsewhere, protesters have targeted Sir Brian Souter, chairman of Stagecoach, which sponsors the Turner Prize. Souter invoked the campaigners’ ire by speaking in favour of banning LGBT discussions in Scottish schools and campaigning to keep Section 28. In 2018, the defence contractor BAE withdrew its support for the Great Northern Exhibition following protests, while several artists withdrew works from the Design Museum after it hosted a private function for Leonardo, an armaments company. In 2017, the arms manufacturer Beretta was targeted for its sponsorship of the Venice Biennale. Meanwhile, the businessmen Warren Kanders was earlier this year, forced to resign from the board of New York’s Whitney Museum following criticism that his company, Safariland, made tear gas used by the US military.

It is perhaps worth noting just how widespread arts funding from now-controversial corporations is. Between them BP and Shell have sponsored the Royal Opera House, Tate Britain and Tate Modern, the British Museum, the National Gallery, the NPG, the National Theatre and South Bank Centre, the Science Museum, the Natural History Museum and the National Maritime Museum. The Sackler Trust has donated more than £60 million to UK arts organisations since 2010. It should be noted, too, that the major Sackler donors have always stated that they have no involvement with the opioid business. BP and Shell, meanwhile, spend billions on renewables as well as fossil fuel exploration.

The claim is that morally dubious organisations are whitewashing their images by subsidising the arts. The counterclaim is that pusillanimous museums and galleries are virtue signalling by refusing much-needed funds. Who should or should not be allowed to give money is by no means clear. The Museums Association’s ethical code, to which most of the major galleries subscribe, states simply that sponsorship money must fit with the institution’s “ethical values”, and most take due diligence extremely seriously. Tate has its own ethics committee, for example, and screens all contributors giving more than £10,000. Ethical values and financial necessity are not always compatible.

UK public spending on museums declined by 13 per cent in real terms from 2007 (£829 million) to 2017 (£720 million), while a report written in 2018 by the historian David Cannadine noted that the UK government gives less in percentage terms to culture than Hungary, Latvia, Denmark and France. So if money from government is decreasing and major donors are being hounded into withdrawing financial support, who makes up the shortfall and who is the ultimate loser?

As Sir Christopher Frayling, former chairman of Arts Council England, has said: “Some of these companies smell a bit and isn’t it great that they are giving their money to the arts rather than to anything else? Lots of good things have happened as a result.” It is not a new problem: Medici money in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was hardly untainted.

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