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How Activists Are Forcing Museums To Take a Long, Hard Look At Their Donors


Near the conclusion of the film “Dangerous Liaisons” (1988), there’s a moment in which the Marquise de Merteuil (Glenn Close) arrives at her box at the opera, and becomes the target of incessant booing and catcalls. The private correspondence between herself and her deceased ex-lover (John Malkovich) has become public, causing her cruel machinations to be laid open to scrutiny. Forced to return home in shame, she distractedly removes her pancake makeup before her dressing table mirror, no doubt reflecting on the fact that the show’s over for her, socially speaking.

Given the trajectory of contemporary art in general, one might be forgiven for thinking that shame has become utterly foreign to the art world. The controversy around the infamous 1999 “Sensation” exhibition of works by young British artists at the Brooklyn Museum, which then-New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani attempted to defund, seems like it took place a lifetime ago.

Nearly two decades later, the Met’s 2018 “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination” show opened with a costume ball containing more blasphemy than an old George Carlin standup routine, and among those in attendance was the present cardinal archbishop of New York. Sic transit gloria mundi.

Yet strangely enough, public shaming still holds power over the art world today, albeit along different lines. In the past, displaying offensive art got you into trouble. These days, it’s not so much what you display, but rather who paid for the display, that’s becoming increasingly problematic.

Inflicting PAIN

Following a wrist injury in 2017, contemporary art photographer Nan Goldin became addicted to the prescription pain medication OxyContin, and after emerging from rehab formed a group called Prescription Addiction Intervention Now (PAIN). Under her leadership, PAIN began to organize protests at art institutions that receive funding from members of the Sackler family.

Some of the Sacklers are well-known art philanthropists, and the Sacklers happen to own Purdue Pharma, the leading U.S. manufacturer of this particular opioid. Goldin’s painful experience in taking the drug turned into a cause for public advocacy in her milieu, the art community, where she found that others had undergone similar experiences.

Goldin’s specialty is the “die-in,” in which she and other members of PAIN fall to the ground and play dead. Arguably her most famous staging of this to date occurred in March of last year, when she and a group of around 100 people gathered in the Sackler Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which houses the Ptolemaic Temple of Dendur. They tossed empty pill bottles into the ornamental waterway that surrounds the temple, before the participants proceeded to “die” on the spot.

In February of this year, Goldin was contacted by the National Portrait Gallery in London, which asked if she would mount a retrospective of her work at the museum. She refused, noting that the museum was accepting donations from the Sacklers, and she would have nothing to do with the museum while that was the case. A few weeks later, the museum refused a Sackler grant of over $1 million, albeit without reference to Goldin. Within a few months, the Tate, Guggenheim, and Met each individually announced that they would no longer accept donations from the Sacklers.

Human nature being what it is, guilt by association has now spread to other branches of the Sackler family who had nothing to do with OxyContin. The late Arthur M. Sackler, for example, who died well before either Purdue Pharma or OxyContin came into existence, was a major art collector and museum donor. Indeed, the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of Art on the National Mall is named for him, and houses his substantial collection of Asian art and antiquities.

Just recently however, Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon took the unusual step of writing to Lonnie Bunch, secretary of the Smithsonian, requesting that Arthur Sackler’s name be removed from the museum, to erase any public connection between the Smithsonian and the Sackler family. To date, the Smithsonian hasn’t issued a formal response. However, as the Smithsonian is a congressionally chartered, taxpayer-funded institution, this isn’t a request Bunch can simply ignore.

Big Trouble for Big Oil

Pharmaceutical industry donations are not the only target for activists related to funding. Perhaps not surprisingly, Big Oil is increasingly being shut out of the international art philanthropy arena as well, as climate activist groups seek to shame art institutions that accept donations from the fossil fuels industry. While this particular wave has not really broken on these shores yet, some recent examples from across the pond may portend what will be arriving here in the near future.

Back in 2017, the Tate ended its corporate giving relationship with British Petroleum, which had provided millions of dollars in funding to the museums over the course of many years. The parties publicly blamed the business environment, rather than a series of protests staged by climate activists targeting both BP and the Tate, as the cause for the end of their long-standing agreement, but the art press has remained more skeptical of the root cause.

The following year, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and the Mauritshuis Museum in The Hague severed their corporate relationships with Royal Dutch Shell Oil, after both institutions became the targets of escalating climate protests due to the donations they received from the oil and gas giant. Again, press releases made no allusions to the influence of climate protestors, but no one in the art world seriously believed that these long-standing ties were severed purely by chance.

The most recent target of climate activists is the British Museum, which will be opening a major exhibition on the Trojan Wars this fall under BP sponsorship. Protests earlier this year surrounding BP’s sponsorship of a British Museum exhibition on the Assyrian Empire were unsuccessful, which has only made these groups more determined to force the museum to end its donor relationship with Big Oil. Activists have publicly stated that they intend to use the time before the exhibition opens to plan their next shame campaign, so we’ll have to wait and see what they come up with.

In the United States, of course, Big Oil has been involved in the art game for quite a long time; consequently, its influences may prove to be more difficult for climate activists to disentangle. The most obvious example is the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, founded by oil magnate J. Paul Getty, who left the bulk of his personal fortune to a trust that runs the museum, making it the most richly endowed art institution in the world.

A substantial number of major art collections in the United States came to be because of petroleum, or at least, have something of a whiff of the stuff about them, including the Met, MoMA, and practically every art museum in Ohio or Texas. Big Oil, both foreign and domestic, continues to provide corporate sponsorship for art institutions large and small across the country.

If activists in the U.K. are able to persuade more British institutions not to accept funds from the fossil fuels industry, the beneficiary will likely be the United States—at least for a while. In the past year, BP served as a major corporate sponsor of exhibitions at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and at the National Gallery here in DC. However, it’s not hard to imagine that at some point its philanthropy will no longer be welcome here, either.

The Future of Philanthropy?

To give credit where it’s due, through the exercise of free speech some relatively vocal groups that are deeply concerned about certain issues have managed to overcome the fundamental tendency of major art institutions to care more about the amount of their revenue, rather than the source of it. That has to be a good thing, not only for advocates of free speech, but also for the art world as a whole. Museums that care more about making a buck than in preserving and displaying the objects in their care have been a major problem in the art world for decades now.

On the other hand, it’s difficult to think of any business—transportation, agriculture, electronics, apparel, cosmetics, finance, real estate, etc.—that could satisfy the ethical requirements of everyone. Nor is it patently clear who gets to decide which companies’ or individual’s money is acceptable, and which are to be considered anathema. Yet given the clear traction such efforts are having in major museums at home and abroad, we can only expect this trend to continue.