NEW YORK — The Metropolitan Museum of Art said Wednesday it would stop accepting gifts from members of the Sackler family linked to the maker of OxyContin, severing ties between one of the world’s most prestigious museums and one of its most prolific philanthropic dynasties.
The decision was months in the making and followed steps by other museums, including the Tate Modern in London and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, to distance themselves from the family behind Purdue Pharma. On Wednesday, the American Museum of Natural History said that it, too, had ceased taking Sackler donations.
The moves reflect the growing outrage over the role the Sacklers may have played in the opioid crisis, as well as an energized activist movement that is starting to force museums to reckon with where some of their money comes from.
“The museum takes a position of gratitude and respect to those who support us, but on occasion, we feel it’s necessary to step away from gifts that are not in the public interest, or in our institution’s interest,” said Daniel H. Weiss, president of the Met. “That is what we’re doing here.”
The Met’s relationship with the Sacklers goes back decades, and one of its biggest attractions, the Temple of Dendur, is in the glass-enclosed Sackler Wing. Weiss said the museum had no plans to remove the name, as some protesters have demanded.
But its decision to stop accepting future gifts from Sacklers or their foundations could spur other cultural institutions to follow suit. The family has given tens of millions of dollars and put its name in or on museums, universities, and medical schools in the United States, England and Israel.
“An organization of the Met’s reputational heft sets standards in the field,” said Maxwell L. Anderson, a longtime leader of museums.
In the New York area alone, in addition to the Met, the Guggenheim and the Natural History museums, the Metropolitan Opera, and the Dia Art Foundation are among the institutions that have received substantial gifts from the Sacklers.
In a statement, the Sackler family members with ties to Purdue Pharma said that “while the allegations against our family are false and unfair, we understand that accepting gifts at this time would put the Met in a difficult position.”
“We respect the Met and that is the last thing we would want to do,” the statement said. “Our goal has always been to support the valuable work of such outstanding organizations, and we remain committed to doing so.”
The increased scrutiny on donors is forcing museums to navigate moral quandaries and a political climate where a protest can go viral in a matter of hours. At the same time, they must mollify the wealthy benefactors who help keep the lights on and would rather not see donations open them up to public examination.
“There really aren’t that many people who are giving to art and giving to museums; in fact it’s a very small club,” said Tom Eccles, executive director of the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College. “So we have to be a little careful what we wish for here.”
There is also the difficult question of where to draw a line. What sort of behavior is found inexcusable?
“We are not a partisan organization; we are not a political organization, so we don’t have a litmus test for whom we take gifts from based on policies or politics,” said Weiss of the Met. “If there are people who want to support us, for the most part we are delighted.
“We would only not accept gifts from people if it in some way challenges or is counter to the core mission of the institution, in exceptional cases,” he added. “The OxyContin crisis in this country is a legitimate and full-blown crisis.”
Three brothers, Arthur, Mortimer, and Raymond Sackler, bought a small company called Purdue Frederick in 1952 and transformed it into the pharmaceutical giant it is today. In 1996, Purdue Pharma put the opioid painkiller OxyContin on the market, fundamentally altering the company’s fortunes.
The family’s role in the marketing of OxyContin, and in the opioid crisis, has come under increased scrutiny in recent years. Documents submitted this year as part of litigation by the Attorney General Maura Healey of Massachusetts allege that members of the Sackler family directed the company’s efforts to mislead the public about the dangers of the highly addictive drug. The company has denied the allegations and said it “neither created nor caused the opioid epidemic.”
Arthur Sackler died before OxyContin’s creation, and his side of the family, which has supported institutions including the Smithsonian and the Brooklyn Museum, sold his stake in the pharmaceutical business after his death. One of his children, Elizabeth A. Sackler, has called the company’s role in the opioid epidemic “morally abhorrent.”
Weiss, who described the Met’s decision as a “suspension,” said the museum would refuse only gifts from members of the Sackler family closely connected to Purdue. Several family members, or their charities, have given to the museum in recent years, including the Mortimer D. Sackler Foundation, which has donated at least $200,000 since 2012.
That is a relatively small amount for a museum with a $320 million annual budget, but the symbolism of the Met’s decision was unmistakable.
The family’s contributions to the Met go back some 50 years. A 1978 news release announcing the dedication of the Sackler Wing said it cost $9.5 million to build — about $36 million in today’s dollars — and called the Sacklers “major donors” to the project. At the dedication reception, which was jointly hosted by the Met and the three brothers, the Martha Graham Dance Company performed a new work at the Temple of Dendur, which was a gift from Egypt to the United States.
Nan Goldin, a photographer who overcame an OxyContin addiction, has led demonstrations at institutions that receive Sackler money; in March 2018, she and her supporters dumped empty pill bottles in the Sackler Wing’s reflecting pool.
“We commend the Met for making the ethical, moral decision to refuse future funding from the Sacklers,” a group started by Goldin, Prescription Addiction Intervention Now, said in a statement. “Fourteen months after staging our first protest there, we’re gratified to know that our voices have been heard.”