A person stolls between large pieces of ice in front of the Tate Modern in London

Visitors walk around Ice Watch, a piece of installation art made up of giant blocks of ice by artist Olafur Eliasson, at Tate Modern in London, Britain. The Tate Modern is one of two British museums that have turned down money from the Sackler family, who made money marketing and selling the drug OxyContin.

Credit:

Henry Nicholls/Reuters

The Sackler family — which owns Purdue Pharma —  has used much of its fortune to fund museums and cultural institutions. Last week, the National Portrait Gallery in London and the Tate galleries said they will no longer accept Sackler money. On Friday, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York became the first American institution to follow suit. 

In 1996, Purdue released OxyContin, the drug that is primarily responsible for triggering the US' opioid epidemic.

The World's Marco Werman spoke to Benjamin Soskis who focuses on philanthropy at the Urban Institute in Washington, about what the move to reject the money means. 

How big of a deal are these announcements by the Tate and National Portrait Gallery in London?

I think they're a pretty big deal for all the controversy that surrounded the Sackler family over the last couple of years. There hasn't been a single cultural or educational institution — at least that I'm aware of — that has explicitly said they were going to not accept any more Sackler money and puts a lot of pressure on other institutions to make similar decisions.

Related: The family that helped start the opioid crisis

Yeah and there's been tons of pressure on American cultural institutions and universities to cut ties with the Sacklers. Why do you think it was European institutions who came to this decision first?

There are two possible explanations. One is the nature of decision-making in these cultural institutions there, which is slightly different than in the American context. Perhaps the deeper question is whether or not American institutions all feel like they're in competition for Sackler money. Anyone who opts out is putting themselves at a major disadvantage, and the pursuit of high sums in these institutions is fierce. And so, I think there is a general reluctance not to be the first. Now, however, the pressure really is on.

Just how important are the Sacklers as philanthropists?

They are one of the major philanthropic families of the late 20th and early 21st century with a real global reach. They have a major presence in British institutions, but they've also funded the Louvre, Peking University. They've funded a Jewish museum in Germany. Their reach extends extremely far, and in the US, they have funded hundreds of millions of dollars through some of the major, major research institutions in the country.

The other thing is that the Sackler family is vast. How big and sprawling is this family?

So, there are three patriarchs that took a small pharmaceutical company that was known generally for making laxatives and transformed it into a pharmaceutical giant in part through OxyContin. One of them died before the advent of OxyContin — Arthur Sackler. That leaves two patriarchs, Richard and Mortimore, and they are the ones who helped build the company through OxyContin. So, when you see the Sackler name on a museum's wall, you can't automatically assume that the money came from the sale of this problematic opioid and that's one reason why, say, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has emphasized the fact that the money they received was from Arthur, who did not have his hand in OxyContin.

Some critics would say that the philanthropic side of the Sackler family basically allowed them to continue profiting from a killer drug while garnering goodwill and cover through museums and galleries. Do you think that's fair?

It's unclear to me the extent to which their philanthropic profile shielded them from public scrutiny. I think they just had very good lawyers and to some extent were able to hide behind the kind of corporation itself — if they really wanted to avoid scrutiny, they could have had a much lower profile, both philanthropically and otherwise. The problem is they wanted it both ways. They wanted to avoid any type of acknowledgment of their role in Purdue Pharma but they wanted to have a major public profile as philanthropists. And I think what's happened is that that contradiction just became too severe and it sort of fell apart.

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