Activists and unexpecting visitors filled every floor of the museum for a busy night at the Guggenheim (photos by Todd Collins, T.W.Collins Photography)

Nan Goldin and her activist group of drug policy advocates, PAIN (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) took the Guggenheim Museum by surprise yesterday, February 9, in a covert direct action against the Sackler Family, owners of the opioid manufacturer Purdue Pharma. The group later marched down the Museum Mile on Fifth Avenue for a second, publicly-announced protest at the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Mock prescriptions detailed emails between Richard Sackler and Robert Kaiko (photo by Hakim Bishara/Hyperallergic)

The iconic spiral atrium of the Guggenheim Museum was humming with visitors at 6:30 pm, on a busy free admission Saturday, when a rain of leaflets fell from the top stories all the way down to the rotunda’s floor, where Goldin and her supporters started their chants. The pamphlets feature a fake medical prescription citing from an email exchange between Robert Kaiko, the developer of OxyContin, and Richard Sackler, in which Sackler replies to Kaiko’s warnings against the abuse potential of the drug if left uncontrolled with the question: “How substantially would it improve our sales?”

This exchange was revealed in January in the court documents of a lawsuit filed against Purdue in the state of Massachusetts. The blizzard of white slips of paper that filled the Guggenheim’s atrium’s air was the group’s response to another statement by Sackler, in which he said, “The launch of OxyContin tablets will be followed by a blizzard of prescriptions that will bury the competition. The prescription blizzard will be so deep, dense, and white.”

Activists staged a die-in at the Guggenheim museum yesterday, February 9 (photos by Todd Collins, T.W.Collins Photography)

The die-in (photo by Hakim Bishara/Hyperallergic)

Other protestors who were located at the balconies of all four of the museum’s stories draped down red signs that read: “400,000 dead”; “Shame on Sackler”; “200 dead each day”; and “Take down their name”. Downstairs, protesters staged a “die-in,” surrounded by the fallen leaflets and mock OxyContin prescription bottles. The protesters chanted: “More are dying every day; we need action right away”.

“We came to the museums a year ago. We came to the Met and did an action. We asked that they take down their [The Sackler family’s] name. We asked they refuse to future funding — There has been no response,” Goldin told Hyperallergic. “There was a weak response that they are ‘looking into their gift policy,’ and that’s the best we got.” This latest direct action, said Goldin, is in repose to the revelation in the court documents in Massachusetts. “It’s so dark, it’s evil … I can’t breathe, and I’m furious.”

PAIN Sackler organizers and supporting activists marched from the Guggenheim over to the Met (photo by Hakim Bishara/Hyperallergic)

Nan Goldin on the frontlines (photo by Hakim Bishara/Hyperallergic)

Following the new revelations, the Metropolitan Museum announced in January that it will review its gift acceptance policies. “They have not done anything,” said Goldin, who staged her first direct action in the museum at the Met’s Sackler Wing in March 2018. “We will come back every year until something happens. Until they disavow themselves.” The Sacklers, she added, should be charged with murder. “They should be in jail, next to El Chapo.”

Robert Suarez, who lost his mother in 2001 to complications due to opioid abuse, and suffered himself from OxyContin addiction for six years, told Hyperallergic, “The Sackler family made billions of dollars out of the loss of lives. For an institution like the Guggenheim to take any of this blood money … it’s criminal. We need to expose the Sackler family for who they are: They are the highest form of drug dealers. They knew the addictive properties of OxyContin long before it came out, and they exploited that. They pushed OxyContin onto the public and paid doctors to push it too.”

Drug policy advocates on the steps of the Met (photos by Todd Collins, T.W.Collins Photography)

In an emotional address in front of the Metropolitan Museum, Alexis Pleus, who lost her son, Jeff, to OxyContin addiction when he was a high school student said, “I don’t expect the Sacklers to care about my son Jeff; I don’t expect the legislators to care about my son Jeff; but 40,000 lives? Somebody should care about that.” Pleus, who founded the organization Truth Pharm to fight against substance use disorders, demanded that patent for an opioid-antagonist (anti-opioid) drug which Purdue has acquired be taken from its hands and offered to abusers for free.

The Massachusetts state court documents reveal that in the years 2014-15, Purdue considered selling the anti-opioid Buprenorphine (better known as Suboxone) to what it regarded as “an attractive market.” The suit quotes from an internal memo which described a “Large unmet need for vulnerable, underserved, and stigmatized patient populations suffering from substance abuse, dependence, and addiction.” Richard Sackler, the former chairman and president of Purdue Pharma, had a different opinion on abusers before the company realized the profit potential from selling Buprenorphine. In an email he wrote in 2011, the court revealed, Sackler attacked abusers as “reckless criminals” and accused them of being “the culprits and the problem” in the opioid crises.

Activists protested the Sacklers financial ties to the Met last night, February 9 (photos by Todd Collins, T.W.Collins Photography)

Goldin founded PAIN Sackler in 2018 while recovering from an OxyContin addiction to condemn the Sackler family and to pressure museums and art institutions to reject their donations. “They’re trying to say that it’s [OxyContin] for ‘peace of mind’ and ‘social calm’. I took OxyContin for those reasons and I ended up locked in my room for three years,” she said at the steps of the Metropolitan Museum, “I came out and realized that it’s time to speak out.”

Hakim Bishara is a Senior Editor at Hyperallergic. He is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital Arts Writers Grant and he holds an MFA in Art Writing from the School of Visual...

13 replies on “PAIN Sackler Storms Guggenheim and Metropolitan Museums for Financial Ties to Opioid Manufacturers”

  1. The Sacklers should be charged with Treason and sent to Guantanamo Bay.

    Definition of treason: “Whoever, owing allegiance to the United States, levies war against them or adheres to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort within the United States or elsewhere, is guilty of treason and shall suffer death.” Their crimes certainly fit the description.

      1. Have you read the comments? I don’t see you asking other commenters for explanations. The protesters are likely commenting here.

        1. I understand the other comments and agree with them, why would I ask clarification? Explain what you wish was different about the educational system, and what the connection is. Protesters are usually educated people who refuse to sheepishly suck down what they’re being spoonfed as acceptable systems.

          1. Teaching hatred and living hatred, are just hatred. That’s what you’ve been spoonfed – hatred. Now you get to live it.

          2. So in your book, people should be taught to bend over and take it with a smile? When people do harm to others knowingly and willfully, they should be held accountable. No one is hating anyone, fairness and justice would simply mean that these people be sent behind bars, there’s no hate involved. There are people being sent to jail for a lot less harm by the way…

          3. You’re not understanding the comment because your hatred obscures your judgment.

            You are evidence that our educational system is not working. You must be a protester. If you’d like to discuss the merits of the protest, I am willing. But if you just want to hate others, you’ve already lost.

          4. And what can we say of the Sacklers’ position in all of this? Do they hate those they’ve condemned to death and addiction or do they simply not give a f***? Is total indifference to killing and death akin to the hatred of which you speak?

  2. If I remember correctly, weren’t the naming rights part of a donation from the 1970s from a Sackler family member who died in the 70s or 80s, decades before OxyContin or the opioid crisis?
    Do the actions of later family members mean the name should be removed?

    Also, shouldn’t the writer include this info or a comment from the museum or the family? This amounts to a dressed up press release for Nan Goldin and PAIN.

  3. There is a very serious issue of hypocrisy here that I have yet to see anyone, including Princess Nan or Hyperallergic address. Nan Goldin was a recreational user of street heroin in the 80’s and she became known – and paid – for her work then, which was primarily photos of her junky friends/lifestyle. Sort of like exploiting junkies, basically, for her own fame and monetary advancement. Now, her work – those images of heroin users – can be sold for tens of thousands of dollars and she can get a show of her work in any museum or gallery at any time. Good for her for finally using her white privilege for something meaningful, but she has yet to go the full distance. But of course she can’t go the full distance, which would be to remove her work from all collections and museums that are tainted by the very same corrupt money she is now protesting, because she’s already ingrained in the very same system she is also complaining about. You can’t have it both ways, folks. I don’t see Nan and PAIN at any other actions, ie supporting DTP or W.A.G.E. or Chinatown Art Brigade, etc etc etc where it would be helpful to have her name with those related causes. Basically, her efforts reek of privileged white rich artist hypocrite. Of course the Sacklers need to be taken down, but can some more Blue Chip artists please step up to help? Nan, love you, great work, but please take it further if possible.

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