Cultural Institutions Not Concerned About 'Tainted' Donations

Cultural Institutions Not Concerned About 'Tainted' Donations

The controversy surrounding the role played by Purdue Pharma in the opioid epidemic is raising questions about the degree to which recipients of charitable gifts are responsible for vetting the source of their major donors' fortunes, the New York Times reports.

The Sackler family fortune was built largely on Purdue Pharma, the privately held company that produces OxyContin, one of the most common drugs involved in prescription opioid overdose deaths. Purdue's parent company has pleaded guilty to a federal felony charge of misbranding OxyContin with the intent to defraud or mislead, while Purdue itself is facing new lawsuits and another federal investigation. Although the Sacklers have not been accused of wrongdoing, and not all opioid-related overdoses or deaths are related to OxyContin, recent articles in the New Yorker and Esquire have highlighted  family members' numerous gifts to causes and cultural institutions, including the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Dia Arts Foundation, the Guggenheim Museum, and the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) — and the Sacklers' conspicuous lack of support for efforts to address the opioid epidemic.

Arts and cultural institutions that have received support from the five foundations run by Sackler family members — including Mortimer and Raymond, two of the three brothers who transformed Purdue into a pharmaceutical giant — do not seem to be overly concerned about the controversy, the Times reports. (Arthur's shares reportedly were bought by his brothers, so his descendants have not profited from OxyContin sales.) Of the twenty-one organizations surveyed by the Times that received significant grants from one of the five foundations, several, including the Guggenheim, declined to comment; others, such as the Brooklyn Museum, ignored questions; and none indicated that they were planning to return donations from the Sacklers or refuse them in the future.

The issue of how concerned nonprofit institutions should be with regard to the source of major donors' wealth stretches back at least as far as the days of Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and the Rockefellers  — philanthropists whose wealth was characterized by many as being based on monopolistic, anti-labor, and environmentally harmful practices. "Historically, museum audiences have not shown evidence of being terribly concerned about sources of income for museums," consultant Susie Wilkening told the Times, "especially if there is no conflict between the mission of the museum and the philosophies or beliefs of the donor."

Still, in the 1980s, anti-smoking groups denounced the Joffrey Ballet and other institutions for accepting money from tobacco companies, while in 2015 climate scientists and environmental groups called on AMNH and the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History to sever ties with David and Charles Koch, whose wealth is based in the fossil fuel industry and who have made a habit of supporting climate change-denying organizations. "That's a risk museums take on by having these sorts of trustees and donors," said Andrew Ross, a professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University. "They are supposed to have ethical values baked in, and because they trade in culture we expect different standards from them."

Not everyone agrees. Former Lincoln Center president Reynold Levy told the Times that rejecting gifts was unlikely to change the behavior of major donors, and declining donations from individuals who are operating within the law could create a slippery slope of shifting expectations that would do little to benefit the organization's audiences. "For institutions to draw lines outside of the law, there would need to be a pretty heavy burden of persuasion to refuse a gift that would advance a meritorious mission," said Levy, who added that "board members should feel free to raise these questions and issues."

Colin Moynihan. "Gifts Tied to Opioid Sales Invite a Question: Should Museums Vet Donors?." New York Times 12/01/2017.