When I heard that the Tate Group was following the National Gallery’s example by refusing to take further donations from the Sackler Trust, funded by the Sackler family, I felt a sense of both relief and pride in the arts industry.
The Trust has for many years made generous donations to leading artistic and philanthropic institutions. On the face of it, this seems positive, as the existing economic model for the arts makes donations and grants essential for the industry’s survival.
But scratch beneath the surface of the Sackler family’s activities, and you will find ethical problems that cannot be reconciled. The Sackler family’s US company Purdue Phama produces the drug OxyContin, a highly addictive painkiller directly linked to the opioid crisis which has claimed the lives of more than 200,000 Americans. Purdue Pharma and members of the Sackler family are currently being investigated and sued for misleading the public about the dangers of OxyContin, and for profiting from sales and marketing strategies that deceived doctors and rewarded them for over-prescribing the drug, leading to an addiction epidemic. I remember the emotional impact of a documentary last year that directly interviewed victims of the opioid crisis. It is heartbreaking to watch, as the victims are often those who are already disproportionately impacted by the punitive social and criminal justice systems in the US. Society has a duty to protect those whose lives are at risk of being shattered.
So where does this leave the arts, funded in part by the profits of such a company? The cultural industries are not exempt from grappling with difficult ethical issues. The Tate galleries are some of the most visited art museums in the UK. They are not only hubs of culture for British citizens, but also represent us internationally, as a leading artistic nation. As such, the Tate Group’s decisions have an impact. We are already seeing the knock-on effects, with the Prince’s Trust and Guggenheim both now refusing Sackler donations, which will increase pressure on Purdue Pharma — and on the family.
The art industry has a reputation for being opaque, a bubble cut off from the real world. It’s an expensive industry to be a part of, as a professional and as an artist, which can make it a haven for people like the Sacklers. This needs to change, which is why the Tate Group’s stand is so significant. No one should be able to buy social status through art, especially if that purchase is funded from morally reprehensible business dealings.
The challenge now for the industry is how we replace this money. The art world is too weighted towards the gallery model, which can leave us at the mercy of benefactors with little moral integrity. We need a sea-change in attitudes towards how we display and fund art, thinking outside of the box and targeting different revenue streams. Artists are already starting to do this themselves, by targeting brands, government bodies, hotels, airports, and a wider pool of private individuals to make themselves profitable.
The public can also play a role. I conducted recent research which found that four in five Londoners would be happy to contribute at least £2 towards public art in their local area. Wouldn’t it be powerful if we could alter the landscape so that people from across our society support our artists, rather than the art world feeling pressured to accept any controversial funding?
It is easy to be disillusioned by the financial heavyweights who have dominated my industry for too long. But this is a watershed moment, a chance to open up a debate about the responsibilities of our cultural institutions, how we fund art, and who it is for. And one thing is certain: as the public and institutional reaction to this story shows, it is never defensible to accept money stained with innocent people’s blood in the name of art.