British Gallery Turns Down $1.3 Million Sackler Donation

LONDON — Britain’s National Portrait Gallery said Tuesday that it was not accepting a long-discussed $1.3 million donation from a charitable arm of the Sackler family.

The decision, reached by mutual agreement between the gallery and the Britain-based Sackler Trust, is the latest sign of the changing climate in the art world toward the family, which has links to the opioid crisis. Members of the family own Purdue Pharma, which makes OxyContin.

“The allegations against family members are vigorously denied, but to avoid being a distraction for the National Portrait Gallery, we have decided not to proceed at this time with the donation,” the Sackler Trust said in a statement.

“We understand and support their decision not to proceed at this time with the donation,” David Ross, the National Portrait Gallery’s chairman, said in a statement.

The Gallery had been considering the gift for over a year, as the controversy around the Sackler family has grown. Nan Goldin, the photographer and anti-opioid activist, drew attention to it last month when she revealed she was in discussions with the gallery over a retrospective. “I have told them I would not do it if they take the Sackler money,” she told The Observer.

The gallery has an ethics advisory committee that provides advice on whether to accept donations. It met shortly after Ms. Goldin’s comments, according to The Art Newspaper. Its advice was confidential and will not be released, a spokeswoman for the National Portrait Gallery said in an email.

“I’m thrilled about the news, and I congratulate them on their courage,” Ms. Goldin said in a telephone interview. “I don’t take credit for it. Maybe I put the last nail in the coffin,” she added, “but they’ve been in discussions for a long time.”

She is still talking with the gallery about a retrospective, she added: “I wish it could be next week.”

Much of the focus on the Sacklers’ donations to art institutions has been in the United States, where deaths and addiction associated with prescription opioids have become an unrelenting crisis. In February, Ms. Goldin, who was addicted to painkillers, and members of a protest group she founded threw scraps of paper meant to look like OxyContin prescriptions from an upper walkway of the Guggenheim Museum in New York, where they floated down on visitors to raise awareness of the donations it has received from the Sackler family.

But awareness is growing in Britain, despite there not being a crisis. This month, several Scottish politicians called on the Victoria and Albert Museum to return a $660,000 grant given by the Sackler Trust to its museum in Dundee, according to The Scotsman newspaper. The two main Britain-based Sackler charities — the Sackler Trust and the Dr. Mortimer and Theresa Sackler Foundation — have donated to numerous galleries and museums including Tate Modern.

On Sunday, Waldemar Januszczak, an art critic, wrote at length about such donations in The Sunday Times of London. “In these days of instant social media condemnation, it will no longer be as easy for our art galleries to turn a blind eye to where their money is coming from,” he wrote.

“If they have to cut down on their ever-growing expansion plans and build fewer Sackler Rooms, so be it,” he added. “It’s a small price to pay for stepping over, finally, to the side of the angels.”

There is no immediate sign that other galleries intend to return donations or stop future ones. When asked about its donations, a spokeswoman for the Victoria and Albert Museum said in an email, “We are grateful for the generosity of donors who make charitable donations to support our public program, help care for the collection and invest in our facilities for future generations.” All donations are reviewed and that includes for reputational risk, she added.

Ms. Goldin said she hoped the National Portrait Gallery was not an outlier. “It can’t be,” she said. “I hope someone else has the courage to do this.”

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