Photographer and activist Nan Goldin has announced that she will turn down a major retrospective of her work at London’s National Portrait Gallery if it accepts a donation of GBP£1 million from members of one branch of the Sackler family, made wealthy through the sale of an addictive pharmaceutical drug.
Goldin told the Observer newspaper: ‘I will not do the show [...] I have been invited to have a retrospective at the National Portrait Gallery and I have told them I would not do it if they take the Sackler money’.
The Sackler family is famous for their philanthropy towards the world’s leading arts institutions, including the Guggenheim Museum, the Serpentine Gallery and the Royal Academy amongst others.
However, much of the wealth of certain Sackler family members comes from the sale of OxyContin, a prescription painkiller stronger than morphine. The drug is thought to have sparked the opioid crisis in the United States, which is killing more than 100 people a day. Numerous lawsuits have been filed alleging disinformation over the safety of OxyContin.
The Observer reported that Goldin spoke to director of the National Portrait Gallery Nicholas Cullinan last week: ‘He acknowledged they are in discussion [about the donation] and there will be a final decision in March’. She continued: ‘I was very surprised at his openness. I really feel it’s so important museums listen to their artists, rather than their philanthropists. What is the museum for? Art is transcendent and that makes it very, very dirty if they take the money; it’s failing the whole idea of a museum as a place to show art.’
Last weekend, Goldin staged two protests in New York at the Guggenheim Museum and Metropolitan Museum of Art over their philanthropic links to the Sackler family. She said: ‘My message is for all institutions everywhere, which are taking Sackler money. They are not going [to be able to] continue to operate ‘business as usual’. People are pushing back and, if they want to maintain their standing as cultural institutions and educational institutions, they have to listen to the people and they have to do the right thing. They have to make a decision.’
In a statement sent to frieze, the National Portrait Gallery said: ‘The Gallery is in regular contact with a wide range of artists about potential future displays and exhibitions, including Nan Goldin, and it wouldn’t be appropriate for us to comment on projects which are still being discussed. The grant pledged by the Sackler Trust is currently going through our internal review process in line with our Ethical Fundraising Policy and charitable objectives and will be reviewed in Spring 2019.’