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Artillery Row

Money doesn’t smell

What’s the point of refusing Sackler funds for concert halls?

Until last weekend you might well not have heard of the Sacklers. They are an Anglo-American family, very rich, very cultured and enormously generous to the arts on both sides of the pond. But there is an Achilles heel. Their wealth came from Purdue Pharma, a drug company once hugely profitable but now forever tainted and sued into bankruptcy for pushing unnecessary opioids on an industrial scale at an increasingly addicted American public.

What shoved the family firmly into the limelight was a combination of Dopesick, Disney Plus’s film about the Purdue debacle, and the revelation last week that in 2020 the Sacklers had given some £14 million to various UK good causes such as the Watermill Theatre in Newbury and the Oxford Philharmonic.

This has not gone down well with the great and the good. Organisations including the National Portrait Gallery and the Tate, which dropped the Sacklers like a hot potato in 2019, say they will never accept their money on principle. Those organisations who accepted grants are excoriated in indignant headlines as “hooked” on donations from the “Dopesick dynasty”. The V & A and other London venues now face demands to expunge the Sackler name from any facilities of theirs.

We can’t sensibly demand that it be simply destroyed: that benefits no-one

Deserved come-uppance for a family of capitalistic robber barons and baronesses? Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. There’s only one problem. Despite the sanctimonious references to the evils of Big Pharma and the need for organisations to distance themselves from its dirty millions as quickly as possible, in fact it’s surprisingly difficult to see any sensible reason not to be grateful for the Sackler money already received (and there is a lot of it), nor yet to argue that any organisation offered Sackler money should not continue to take it with an entirely clear conscience.

It is all very well to talk of principle: but what principle? If Purdue Pharma was good, no problem arises from taking money gained by it. At the risk of sounding perverse, if (as we now know) Purdue was bad, would that not provide an even better reason to take the cash? What better than that the proceeds of misconduct be repurposed and applied to good causes? It might be said that the knowledge that an organisation had taken Sackler money would be offensive. But it is hard to justify a principle that would place organisations under an obligation to avoid any action that would offend a particular group; indeed, if we took this literally a very large proportion of private fund-raising would probably dry up.

Indeed, there is a strong argument that, extreme cases aside, the whole idea of property becoming somehow polluted by the way in which it was gained is itself problematic. What are we meant to do with it? We can’t sensibly demand that it be simply destroyed: that benefits no-one. One could say that it should be confiscated by government and used for beneficial purposes but if that is so, why not cut out the middleman and allow it to be donated directly to good causes? The effect is the same.

Won’t the name of an organisation take up a taint from disreputable funders?

Principle aside, it is also difficult to see much practical point in cultural organisations worrying too much about their funding having come from the Sacklers, or indeed trying to hide the fact. There is after all a lot of dubious money commemorated, at least by today’s standards, without any harm. To take random examples, think of Newcastle University’s Armstrong Hall (armaments), Bristol University’s Wills Building (tobacco) or the Usher Hall in Edinburgh (alcohol). Why the Sackler name should create any greater problem is not entirely clear.

True, some (especially PR and marketing departments whose job it is to seek out and play up people’s perceived sensibilities) will mention reputational issues: won’t the name of an organisation suffer a taint from disreputable funders? But again we need to take this with a large dollop of salt. Take the Oxford Philharmonic, and grant some abstract reputational damage in the nature of “I think less of the Oxford Phil because of the Sackler connection”. But unless this means it cannot play its music, fill its halls or appointment books, this is not very relevant; if the money allows it to bring music to full houses who want it, and thus fulfil its function, that should be good enough. Again, will appreciable numbers of customers cease to patronise the Watermill in Newbury because it admits to having taken money from a family that got it from Big Bad Pharma? It seems unlikely. Are there large numbers of rich donors or grant-giving bodies who will have nothing to do with a charity that has received a modest grant of Sackler money? Possibly but one suspects very few, and not enough to justify an organisation turning down a bird in the hand for a larger but very speculative one in the bush.

In short, when someone makes a call for an arts charity to distance itself from Sackler money, you can be pretty sure that this is not so much an appeal to high principle, as the call of an ostentatious virtue-signaller demanding that the charity join it in its virtue-signalling. But this isn’t an arts charity’s job, and such charities should have the courage to say so. We might as well leave the last word on the subject to the Roman emperor Vespasian. When challenged by his son Titus on the offensiveness of his policy of helping to fill the state treasury from a tax on public urinals, he is said to have produced a coin, smelt it and responded: Pecunia non olet (money doesn’t smell). The same can be said about the use of Sackler money for symphony concerts or whatever. Whatever the source of the money, it is hard to see any objection to its being applied to the improvement of culture. Good music and fine painting don’t stink, any more than money does.

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