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The Day – Lessons from the Sackler era

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It was a supreme moment of addition by subtraction. On December 9, the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced an agreement with representatives of the Sackler family to remove the Sackler name from “seven named exhibition spaces in the museum, including the wing that houses the iconic Temple of Dendur. “.

The Sacklers were one of the most famous philanthropic dynasties of the past half century. In recent years, they have also become better known as the owners of a company, Purdue Pharma, which manufactured and vigorously promoted Oxycontin, a pain reliever that helped trigger the opioid crisis.

The Met’s announcement was the culmination of a campaign led by photographer Nan Goldin – who was previously addicted to opioids and an overdose survivor – and her advocacy group Prescription Addiction Intervention Now (PAIN) to lobby cultural institutions to abandon the name Sackler. PAIN held its first protest in March 2018 at the Met – with activists throwing pill bottles into the reflecting pool in the museum’s Sackler wing – and quickly took over other museums, some of which agreed to break up associations with the family. The Met even promised in May 2019 to refuse any future donation from the Sacklers.

But those names have remained carved on the walls of the museum – until now.

The Sacklers are a somewhat exceptional case; for much of the past few decades, few other families could claim such a gulf between their polished public identities as famous benefactors and the sordid reality of how their fortunes were made. But the Sackler saga may remind us of the importance of dealing with the gap between the two domains of capitalist accumulation and philanthropic redistribution.

Since the dawn of modern philanthropy in the late 19th century, concentrated wealth has been legitimized by the potential to give some of it, even though such gifts have helped obscure the means by which the money was made. . As prescribed by Andrew Carnegie’s 1889 essay “Gospel of Wealth”, since adopted by generations of philanthropists, what mattered most was the intelligence and skill with which wealth was redistributed to the public by the ” steward ”devoted.

So in 1892, shortly after Carnegie’s surrogate brutally quelled a strike at a steel mill in Homestead, Pa., Carnegie faced local opposition over a donation he made to fund a library, music hall and art gallery in Pittsburgh – then responded by emphasizing the need to “separate the giver and his many flaws” from his “donations that have none.”

This logic clearly appealed to many business leaders and benefactors, who did not particularly want the public to sniff around their “mistakes” and who could have seen in philanthropy an opportunity for what is now called “money laundering”. of reputation ”. But it also attracted fundraisers and the boards of charitable institutions that depended on large donations and who preferred not to see their solicitations cluttered with awkward questions about the source of the donations.

Of course, the logic was unconvincing for the men and women who protested against these Carnegie-funded institutions in Pittsburgh. Their presence in history highlights a force that has followed large-scale philanthropy as it has flourished in different time periods, including over the past several decades: a critical audience that values ​​the benefits of philanthropy by against its costs to justify concentrated wealth and questionable business practices.

At the head of these efforts are often those who frequent institutions that rely on philanthropy, as well as those whose lives have been most profoundly shaped (or distorted) by the companies that have produced wealth that fuels philanthropy. The Met’s decision is the crowning glory of this audience.

For nonprofits, the Met’s decision may lead to a more cautious approach to granting naming rights. It is likely, for example, that the news will encourage an emerging trend to incorporate time limits into naming rights agreements (it was a 20-year limit on naming rights that allowed the Louvre to remove all traces of the name Sackler in July 2019, becoming the first major cultural institution to do so).

Some have encouraged time limit provisions as a way to secure a renewable philanthropic resource for nonprofits. In fact, the Sacklers and the Met have made a gesture towards this justification by announcing the deletion of the name, presenting it as a “gracious gesture” on behalf of the family passing by.[ed] the torch ”to a new generation of benefactors who could afford naming rights.

The Met’s move could also convince some of the refractories who still bear Sackler’s name – among them Guggenheim, Yale, Oxford and the National Gallery in London – to remove it.

More broadly still, this latest development will hopefully encourage charitable institutions to think more carefully about the relationship between their mission and the source of the philanthropic dollars they seek to support it. Faced with relentless pressure to bring in more dollars, fundraisers and boards of directors need to think about who they honor and who they could dishonor, by accepting certain large-scale donations.

What could donors learn? The recent Met move and the protests that prompted it have not entirely revoked the license that grand philanthropic acts have historically given to wealthy individuals to tolerate or commit corporate mischief. But they are reminded that, unlike Carnegie, the public pays more attention to the connections between donors, their flaws, and their donations. And so in the future, we can only hope that the erasure of the Sackler name will lead a potential benefactor to act more scrupulously in the heat of the moment.

Benjamin Soskis is a Senior Associate Researcher at the Center on Nonprofit Organizations and Philanthropy at the Urban Institute. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.

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