Photographer Nan Goldin and members of her activist group, P.A.I.N. Sackler, staged a surprise protest at the Guggenheim Museum Saturday evening before marching down to The Metropolitan Museum of Art for a planned action.
At approximately 6:30 p.m., the group took to the Guggenheim’s spiral ramp to unfurl four red banners that spelled out in black lettering “400,000 Dead,” “Shame on Sackler,” “200 Dead Each Day” and “Take Down Their Name.” The group then tossed hundreds of facsimile OxyContin prescriptions down into museum’s rotunda, creating a flurry of white that cascaded over onlooking museum-goers.
On the museum’s main floor, several protesters, including Goldin, participated in a die-in — their limp bodies sprawled on the ground, surrounded by prescription bottles and the leaflets, which were scrawled with the text “Sacklers Lie, People Die” in bright red font.
— Krista Parry (@kristaparry) February 9, 2019
Goldin, who struggled with OxyContin addiction herself and survived a nearly fatal overdose on fentanyl, joined others in the lobby to urge museums and cultural institutions to denounce money from the Sacklers and to remove the family’s name from their institutions.
The protest follows a year-long effort on the part of Goldin and Sackler P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) against the Sackler family, who founded Purdue Pharma, the creator, manufacturer and distributor of the addictive opioid OxyContin. Introduced in the United States in 1996 by the pharmaceutical company, OxyContin and other prescription opioids have been tied to more than 200,000 fatal overdoses in the United States since 1999 and their use accounts for more than 130 deaths each day, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Saturday’s action comes in reaction to recently released court documents from a lawsuit filed against Purdue by Massachusetts (one of many states directly suing the drug company), in which Richard Sackler, son of Purdue Pharma founder Raymond Sackler, brags at the drug’s launch party that the introduction of OxyContin will be followed by “a blizzard of prescriptions that will bury the competition. The prescription blizzard will be so deep, dense, and white.”
“We unleashed a blizzard,” P.A.I.N. activist L. A. Kauffman told ALL ARTS, explaining the group’s visual allusion to Sackler’s statement. When asked about the response to the action by unwitting museum visitors, Kauffman said, “Everyone came to the railings and watched the spectacle unfold, and it was very supportive.”
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The Guggenheim opened its Sackler Center for Arts Education in 2001, following a gift from the Mortimer D. Sackler Family, the acceptance of which Goldin and her group claims has contributed to “whitewashing” the Sackler name.
“We are here to call out the Sackler family, who have become synonymous with the opioid crisis,” said Goldin on the steps of the Met following a march down Fifth Avenue. “We are here to call out all the museums who allow the Sackler name to line their halls, tarnish their wings; who honor the family that made billions off the bodies of hundreds of thousands.” In her speech, Goldin recalled action taken by her group a year ago at the Met, which houses a wing named after Arthur, Mortimer and Raymond Sackler, who donated $3.5 million to the museum in the 1970s.
In light of documents released in the Massachusetts lawsuit, the Met issued a statement that the museum is reviewing its gift acceptance policies, though Goldin argued at the rally that stronger action is still needed.
Neither museum responded immediately for comment.
“The Met has done nothing. They said that they are looking at their gifting policies. What does that mean?” said Goldin, referring to the Met’s recent statement. “We’re going to come back every year until something happens, until they disavow themselves.”
Alexis Pleus, founder of Truth Pharm, spoke after Goldin, noting that she was joined by grieving families from Upstate New York, where communities have been “devastated” by the opioid crisis. Pleus shared a personal anecdote about her son, Jeffrey, who overdosed after being prescribed OxyContin for an injury. Protesters intermittently responded to Pleus’s impassioned speech with a chorus of “That ain’t right.”
“I don’t expect any of you to care about my son, Jeff. I don’t expect the Sacklers to care about my son, Jeff. I don’t expect our legislators to care about my son, Jeff,” said Pleus. “But 400,000? Somebody should care about that.”
Following the speeches, the group implored those gathered to call on institutions that have accepted Sackler money — including the Met, the Guggenheim, the American Museum of Natural History, the Smithsonian, the Harvard Art Museum, the Brooklyn Museum and the Dia Art Foundation — to renounce the Sackler name. Kaufmann told ALL ARTS that P.A.I.N. will continue direct action throughout the upcoming week.
“It’s so abundantly clear that having the Sackler name is like enshrining the name of a mass murderer on some of our most treasured cultural institutions,” Kaufmann said. “And it’s long past time for that to end.”
UPDATE: After publication of this article, the Met responded to a request for comment with the following statement:
“As we have shared, the Museum is currently reviewing its gift acceptance policies. We respect the right of individuals to protest and peaceably assemble in a fashion that that does not put any art in danger or interfere with other visitors.”
Top Image: Protesters at the Met Museum. Photo: Maureen Coyle.