“We all choose our fight and this is mine,” said the art photographer Nan Goldin on Saturday as she led a protest in the Sackler courtyard entrance of the Victoria and Albert Museum.
The action was part of her campaign to stop British and American cultural organisations accepting donations and sponsorship from the family behind the pharmaceutical company that made the addictive opioid painkiller OxyContin.
Goldin and her supporters joined the protest, organised by the group Pain, which unfurled banners calling for the museum’s director, the former Labour MP Tristram Hunt, to drop all associations with the Sackler name.
Goldin told the Observer that although there may be worse things going on in the richest London borough than at the V&A, it was not a question of “ranking evil”.
“Tristram Hunt needs to be re-educated about the fact this is not history,” she said. “These deaths are happening now. And when it comes to the money donated, the V&A did not need this fancy, chic courtyard. It should concentrate on the exhibits and art inside the museum and stop this expansion.”
About 30 protesters arrived at the recently redesigned £2m entrance in Kensington, London, and placed bottles of pills and “Oxy dollar” bills stained red on the handmade porcelain tile flooring. Demonstrators then staged a “die-in”, lying down for five minutes to represent the 400,000 worldwide deaths they blame on drug dependency, and the five people a day they claim die in this country due to prescription drug addiction. To a steady drum beat, the campaigners called out the slogans “Sackler money, blood money” and “Abandon the Sackler name”.
The event was similar to those Goldin has orchestrated at other leading cultural venues including the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim Museum in New York. In a speech, the artist, whose new exhibition at the Marian Goodman Gallery, in London, received praise last week, said money does not last but the legacy of a cultural organisation does.
“The V&A must stop giving cultural legitimacy and social stature to the family who unleashed this crisis, helping them escape consequences for lives lost,” said Goldin, who was addicted to the drug for several years after a painful injury. “Don’t let your legacy be tarnished by their name.”
A V&A spokesperson said: “As a national museum and a space for civic debate, the V&A fully supports the public’s right to a peaceful protest. We are grateful for the generosity of our donors, which contributes towards our world-class public programme, supports the expert care needed for the collection and improves our facilities so they can be enjoyed by future generations.”
Pain claims that marketing of OxyContin, which was made by the American company Purdue Pharma and distributed globally through Mundipharma and Napp Pharmaceuticals, was misleading because it did not include the highly addictive nature of the medicine.
Purdue was set up by three Sackler brothers, Arthur, Mortimer and Raymond, all now deceased. The branch of the family descended from Arthur Sackler have argued they are not liable for the impact of OxyContin as he left Purdue before the drug was developed in 1987. In America, hundreds of thousands of dollars have been paid to users, and the Connecticut company, which filed for bankruptcy two months ago, has also donated to health programmes in an effort to make amends for the addiction crisis.
Pain said Britain has the third fastest growing rate of opioid use in the world with 41.4 million opioid prescriptions written in the UK in 2017.Other British institutions that have received Sackler gifts are the Royal Opera House, the Royal College of Art, Dulwich Picture Gallery and the V&A’s neighbour on Exhibition Road, the Natural History Museum.
Earlier this year, Goldin said she would not go ahead with a planned solo exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery off Trafalgar Square if it continued to accept support from the Sackler family.
In March, the director of the gallery, Nicholas Cullinan, was told that the offer of the £1m donation was being withdrawn by the Sackler Trust. Similar decisions followed at the Tate Modern, Serpentine Gallery, the Louvre in Paris and Guggenheim and Metropolitan art museums.
The Sacklers suspended charitable donations before Purdue filed for bankruptcy, halting almost 2,700 lawsuits filed against the family and their company.
The Sackler courtyard, which was opened to national fanfare in June 2017, was designed by the architect Amanda Levete. Pain is demanding the name be changed, as well as that of the museum’s Sackler Centre for Arts Education. Levete said yesterday that the idea that the museum did not need her courtyard was “bizarre”.
Pain argues that Hunt should stop defending his museum’s right to maintain the Sackler image as cultural philanthropists.
The V&A director is abroad but a spokesperson for the museum said the courtyard has boosted visitor numbers. “The V&A Exhibition Road Quarter has provided a major new piece of public realm, a new entrance into the museum to help welcome and engage a wide range of audiences, a new café, and a state-of-the-art, temporary exhibition space and gallery. The courtyard also enables previously hidden historic facades of the grade I listed buildings to be seen by the public for the first time in decades.”
Eight members of the Sackler family are being sued by multiple American cities, counties and states in cases due to be heard in the spring.