Picasso’s Personnage (1965), part of Matthew Green’s money-laundering plan. © Succession Picasso 2018

Pablo Picasso  / “Personnages, Painted 11 April 1965” 

Isn’t it rich? First, the National Portrait Gallery and the Tate in London, then, the Guggenheim and the Met in New York, all recently decided to turn down money from the Sackler family. Why? Because of the Sacklers’ role in the US opioid epidemic. Their company, Purdue Pharma, by misrepresenting and aggressively marketing the drug Oxycontin, is said to have contributed to the opioid addiction which, so far, has claimed around 200,000 lives. The pressure is now on on a long list of art galleries and museums, not only in the UK and the US, but also in France, Germany, and Israel to rebuff scores of millions of Sackler donations. Ditto for the universities of Oxford, Princeton, Columbia, and Harvard which, through their museums and research institutions, have long been beneficiaries of the Sacklers’ largesse.

Already in 2007, Purdue Pharma and three top executives paid more than US$630 million in fines to the US government for “misbranding” Oxycontin, fraudulently promoting it and playing down the risk of abuse. Since then a handful of states have pursued their own cases, giving rise to settlements in the tens (West Virginia, $10 million; Kentucky, $24 million), if not in the hundreds of millions (Oklahoma, $270 million). During the past year, the advocacy group PAIN (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now), founded by photographer and opioid-abuse victim Nan Goldin, has turned up the heat on the management of Sackler-funded museums, regularly staging disruptive protests or “die-ins” on their premises. Thus far, PAIN has chalked up significant triumphs, with art institutions walking away from “gifts not in the public interest” and the Sackler family foundation itself withdrawing donation offers. It is difficult indeed to cast a company many perceive no less than murderous to be a “benefactor” or “philanthropic”.

The causal relation between Oxycontin and the opioid abuse epidemic is clear. Not so between the Sackler money, on the one hand, and the aims of the art and educational institutions, on the other.

Museum authorities state they do not wish to be complicit in the Sackler family’s attempts at “white-washing” or even “moral money-laundering”. They object to abandoning the moral high-ground by accepting the Sacklers’ tainted money. Is there sufficient basis for such thinking?

It’s difficult to condemn, at face value, the mere act of making donations to cultural and educational institutions. On the contrary, many governments tend to encourage and reward such civic behaviors, giving tax breaks. We generally want more, not less of them. Hence the need to look into the donors’ intentions. Not being privy to the legal deeds or agreements, we do not know for sure what they were. However, it seems reasonable to think that the Sacklers’ motivations were more reputational and social, than economic or financial. Otherwise, why make donations in the first place? Surely, there would have been other more lucrative ways to invest money. Perhaps members of the Sackler family were just genuinely interested in the arts and would like the wider public to benefit from aesthetic experiences through their patronage. So to complete our analysis, we have to turn to the circumstances surrounding the donations, particularly the opioid abuse epidemic and the lawsuits.

Whichever way you examine it, Richard Sackler’s call to create a “blizzard of prescriptions to bury the competition” sounds horrific. But by giving money to museums, his family cannot be accused of concealing the sources of their estimated $13 billion wealth. Neither could one maintain that their fortune, accumulated through decades and a wide array of business activities, was entirely illegitimate. We depend on courts to determine that. And if they do, most likely, it would not be for all, but only for specific earnings or profits. That’s why judges take care in establishing fines and damages.

So despite the appalling optics, it doesn’t seem right to accuse the Sacklers of trying to buy legitimacy or covering up misdeeds through charitable donations. They have long been engaged in giving to the arts, even before the first charges were levied, and no attempts were made to mislead government authorities or the public about the true source of their wealth.

How, then, can we explain the smugness of the museums’ reactions?

Certainly, as art critic Philip Kennicott suggested, they could have adopted a pragmatic stance and continued accepting the donations. They need support and would put the money to good use; they had no say on how it was made and could not be held accountable. To argue that museums condone the opioid-pushing by simply displaying the Sackler name on their halls seems ridiculous. Further, there is also the issue of consistency. Are museums now supposed to investigate the origins of all the gifts, in cash or in kind, that they receive? Can they guarantee that none of their donors was ever involved in illegal dealings or made a fortune while engaging in human or environmental exploitation? Could they vouch for the legitimate conveyance of all the artworks they possess? Would all these inquiries even be feasible? If not, then why pick on the Sacklers?

The problem is that many, like the museum directors, seem to look for a state of innocence long gone among donors. They fail to realize that we are all flawed human beings, the Sacklers included. But this shouldn’t prevent us from at least attempting to do good works. Otherwise, we couldn’t even perform the reparation or restitution that justice demands. Sainthood should not be a prerequisite to support cultural and philanthropic organizations. Even imperfect people can and should do good deeds.

Theodore Roosevelt was supposed to have said, criticizing John D. Rockefeller’s newly-launched foundation, “No amount of charities in spending such fortunes can compensate in any way for the misconduct in acquiring them.” But even if Roosevelt were right in his allegations, aside from court-mandated sentences, how else could Rockefeller redeem himself, if not through charitable giving?

Alejo José G. Sison teaches at the School of Economics and Business at the University of Navarre and investigates issues at the juncture of ethics, economics and politics from the perspective of the virtues and the common good. For the academic year 2018-2019, he is a visiting professor at the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America. He is an editor of the recently published “Business Ethics: A Virtue Ethics and Common Good Approach” (Routledge 2018). He blogs at Work, Virtues, and Flourishing from which this article has been republished with permission. 

Alejo José G. Sison teaches ethics at the University of Navarre and Georgetown. His research focuses on issues at the juncture of ethics, economics and politics from the perspective of the virtues and...