Museums and Questions of Donor Morality: The Sackler Case

In an earlier Insight, we discussed the issue of renaming by public and private educational institutions in situations where naming honors previously bestowed are now considered inconsistent with the institution’s goals of diversity, inclusion and other questions of morality. We have explored the renaming of public spaces for similar reasons. We have also noted that denaming and renaming should be two separate processes. Here we look at issues surrounding denaming in the context of an increased focus by museums on ethics in philanthropy.

In our insight on educational institution name issues, we referenced removal by Tufts University of the Sackler name from several buildings.

The Sacklers are the owners of Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, which was blamed for fueling the U.S. opioid epidemic. Before the fall from grace, the family was known as a generous patron of arts institutions. However, starting several years ago, artists began demanding removal of the Sackler name from museums. Leading this campaign has been artist Nan Goldin, a former OxyContin addict, who formed a group called PAIN (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now).

Starting in 2019 several major museums announced they would not accept any further donations from the Sackler family, but large-scale removal of the family name from museum facilities is a more recent development.

In March 2022 a $6 billion settlement was reached between Purdue Pharma and a consortium of U.S. attorneys general to resolve a host of civil lawsuits filed against the company. (The settlement still needs final court approval.) One term of the settlement requires the Sackler family to allow institutions to remove the family name from buildings, scholarships and fellowships without penalty, as long as any statement announcing the name change does not “disparage the Sacklers." 

The Sackler name has already been removed, or is committed to be removed, by numerous major museums. The National Gallery in London has removed the Sackler name from its walls, and the Tate announced in February that it would remove references to Sackler philanthropy from its two London museums. The Serpentine Gallery and the British Museum had previously done the same. The Louvre in Paris has removed the Sackler name from a major wing. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has removed the Sackler name from the gallery housing the Temple of Dendur and six other exhibition spaces. In May 2022 the Guggenheim Museum erased the family name from an educational center. Some of these actions have been publicly announced, while others have been more quietly implemented or explained in other ways (such as expiration of a term-limited agreement).

The Victoria and Albert Museum remains one of the last holdouts, with its entrance named the Sackler Courtyard. It is unclear whether that will change. The Smithsonian claims it does not have the legal right to change the name of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery because the naming agreement was in perpetuity.

Activism by artists, among other factors, has increasingly led museums to rethink their policies on accepting donations. To protect themselves from Sackler-like situations in the future, some museums are adding “morals clauses” to donation documents. These clauses are commonly found in entertainment and sports contracts and are generally enforced by courts. According to Terri Lynn Helge, a law professor at Texas A&M University School of Law, morals clauses “… allow an institution to protect themselves in the event of a donor falling from grace.”

But, according to Helge, they are not easy to draft because it is difficult to balance the needs of donor and institution and tricky to anticipate what should constitute a trigger event for disassociation. A premature rush to judgment, as well as a delay in termination, can be disastrous. Some very large donors have the leverage to reject morals clauses altogether (for example, Jeff Bezos’s 50-year naming rights deal with the Smithsonian does not include one). Morals clauses fall into the larger category of termination rights in philanthropic agreements, and there are practical reasons, unrelated to morals, that museums may not want to enter into “forever” contracts. For example, they can discourage other donations and eliminate competition for naming rights.

The Sackler family has not been the only target of artist activism, nor has denaming been the sole issue. In 2019 Warren B. Kanders, the vice-chairman of the board of the Whitney and a major donor to the museum, resigned his position after months of protests by artists over Kanders’s ownership of the Safariland Group, a manufacturer of tear gas, used at the U.S.-Mexico border. In June 2021 Leon Black resigned as chairman of the Museum of Modern Art in New York because of revelations about his association with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. Increasingly, artists are demanding a seat at the table where decisions are made as to leadership and patronage of the cultural institutions that display their works. We will continue to follow these and related developments in this rapidly evolving area.