For arts organizations, fundraising can make or break a yearly budget. Without a loyal group of generous donors, many arts organizations would not be able to do the work they set out to do. Today, many non-profit organizations, museums, and universities rely on philanthropic support to operate. Philanthropic support can come from a variety of sources, including corporate partnerships, awarded grants, and donations from foundations or individual donors. Many prominent organizations in the United States as well as abroad have had a longstanding partnership with members of the Sackler family, who are often major donors to nonprofit institutions. However, recent legal allegations about the Sackler family’s role in the opioid crisis in the United States have forced many institutions to reconsider working with the Sackler family, and as a consequence these organizations will potentially lose millions of dollars in donations.

The legacy of the Sackler family begins with Arthur M. Sackler, a physician and medical marketer, who revolutionized the pharmaceutical industry by advertising drugs such as Valium directly to doctors. In 1982, Arthur Sackler donated $4 million as well as over one thousand artworks and artifacts to the Smithsonian Institution. This major donation established the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery as well as the Freer Gallery of Art on the National Mall in Washington, DC. Arthur’s brothers, Mortimer and Raymond, were principal owners of the pharmaceutical company Perdue Pharma, and their heirs remain tied to the company today. Various Sackler-related foundations, both in the United States and abroad, support non-profit organizations including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the American Museum of Natural History and the Louvre Museum in Paris. Universities have also benefited from Sackler family philanthropy: there is a Sackler gallery at the Princeton University Art Museum, a Sackler museum at Harvard University, and one at Peking University in Beijing.

Perdue Pharma was founded as Perdue Frederick in 1892 by John Perdue Grey. In 1952, the Sackler brothers each bought shares in the company, with Mortimer and Raymond buying out Arthur’s share in 1987 after his death. Perdue Pharma was formed in 1991 and filed for bankruptcy in 2019. The company developed, manufactured, and marketed medications to healthcare professionals, patients, consumers, and caregivers. One of these medications was OxyContin (oxycodone), a narcotic drug used to treat chronic pain in patients that needed daily relief. Developed in 1996, oxycodone is a Schedule II restricted substance with a high risk of addiction, abuse, and misuse reported in patients. Additionally, because the drug is extended-release, there is a danger of overdose and death if too much of the drug enters one’s system. Nearly 500,000 people died of an opioid overdose between 1999 and 2019, according to the CDC.

The anti-opioid group Prescription Addiction Intervention Now (P.A.I.N.) has brought public attention to the misdeeds of Perdue Pharma, and has implicated the Sackler family for their complicity in the American opioid crisis. In 2007, Perdue Pharma and three of its executives plead guilty to misleading doctors about OxyContin’s potential for abuse. Perdue plead guilty again in 2020 on similar charges. More recent lawsuits have attempted to target members of the Sackler family by name for profiting off of the production and misuse of OxyContin, but a ruling in 2021 blocked further legal action and protected Sackler family members. In exchange, Perdue Pharma will pay $6.3 billion, the Sackler family members will pay over $4.3 billion, and the Sacklers must sever ties with Purdue completely. The company will then be restructured, with the mission of ending the opioid epidemic many people believe it started. Public, guerilla-style protests by members of P.A.I.N. have taken place at well-known institutions including the Guggenheim, Harvard University, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Smithsonian. Jillian Sackler, widow of Arthur M. Sackler, describes her late husband as a scapegoat for the epidemic: “He died over 30 years ago, and he’s the scapegoat,’’ she said. “It’s absolutely incredible.’’

With half a million deaths caused by opioid abuse in America, the Sackler family has been implicated publicly and, as such, organizations are hesitant to receive funds from Sackler-related foundations and trusts. The family denies culpability, and Jillian Sackler denies Arhur’s involvement at all. In a press statement, a spokesperson for the family said, "While the families have acted lawfully in all respects, they sincerely regret that OxyContin, a prescription medicine that continues to help people suffering from chronic pain, unexpectedly became part of an opioid crisis that has brought grief and loss to far too many families and communities." But the damage has already been done; in 2019, the Louvre Museum in Paris removed the Sackler name from its galleries, and Britain’s National Portrait Gallery turned down a $1.3 million dollar donation from the Sackler Trust. The Metropolitan Museum of Art also stopped taking money from Sackler-related charities in 2019, and Forbes maintains a current list of museums that have ended their relationship with any of the family’s philanthropic groups.

The choices of these major institutions indicate a major shift in donor relations. All too often, nonprofit organizations would accept money without asking questions about where it came from. Public opinion (and protests) have forced institutions to critique the sources of their funding. To see the changes actually happening in real time is worth noting. Ideally, other major donors will be questioned as well, and nonprofit institutions will stop taking money from donors with questionable sources of wealth. Former president Theordore Roosevelt is quoted as saying “No amount of charity in spending such fortunes can compensate in any way for the misconduct in acquiring them.” Non-profit organizations are beginning to recognize the truth of that sentiment.

For institutions, however, it is not so simple to cut ties with major donors like the Sackler family. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art, for example, is unable to remove the “Arthur M. Sackler” name from its galleries. In an acknowledgement on their website, the museum said, “Though we no longer accept donations from the Sackler family, the 1982 gift agreement requires that the facility and original collection retain the name of Arthur M. Sackler in perpetuity. Removing the Sackler name from this gallery would jeopardize the museum’s ability to retain these objects, which now form a part of our country’s holdings and contribute to our mission to share the arts and cultures of Asia with the public.”

Contractual obligations with major donors often prevent a clean break, and museums may not be willing to risk their collections. There is not a clear path forward as to how these things should be handled, which complicates the situation further. By accepting money from Sackler-related foundations, museums, universities, and other nonprofit organizations may find themselves implicated in the misconduct of the donors themselves. Lawyer Marcus Owens spoke to Philanthropy News Digest, saying, “For the institutions, it's a real balancing act where there hasn't been an actual conviction of a crime, and it's more that the donors have done something that is optically troubling to the recipient." As public outrage and grief over the opioid crisis continues, nonprofits do not want to be blamed, but may find it hard to navigate away from the perceived wrongdoing of their donors.

“It is more difficult and more salient now because we are more aware of built-in inequities,” Amir Pasic, dean of the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University, told the Washington Post. “Putting people’s names on a building in today’s atmosphere seems to be giving people of privilege something extra. We’re more allergic to elevating some people over others… Should they consider a new name? Would it be appropriate to give the money back in some way? There are no easy answers.” Nonprofit institutions with ties to problematic donors must find their own paths forward. The International Council of Museums briefly mentions controversial donors in its fundraising standards, and The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University offers a guide to nonprofits for navigating controversial donors. Despite these sources, guidance is limited, but the imperative for museums to act remains. Columnist Ruth Mullington argues, “Museums assume a position of trust in society. They have a duty of care to the public they serve. Museums must, therefore, ensure that accepted donations are not tied to unethical or criminal behavior…  Museums must ensure that any financial gift serves the museum, rather than the donor’s desire to build their brand.” Donors like the Sackler family bring with them an onslaught of controverses. Non-profit organizations, like museums, must decide for themselves if accepting donations from disputable donors is worth the risk.

Caroline Marcyes is a second-year student in the Material Culture and Public Humanities program at Virginia Tech. Her research interests include museum administration and community outreach.