This afternoon a group of activists, including artist Nan Goldin, staged a protest at the Harvard Art Museums in Cambridge, Massachusetts, protesting its connection to the Sackler family, who own Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin that has been accused of fueling the opioid crisis in the United States and abroad.
The protest began around 4 p.m., with protestors marching through the atrium of the building that houses the Museums, which encompass the Fogg Museum, the Busch-Reisinger Museum, and the Arthur M. Sackler Museum, and chanting phrases like, “People over profits” and “Shame on Sackler.” (The original Sackler Museum is located elsewhere on campus, but its collection is now displayed in the main museum building, as part of a Renzo Piano-designed expansion that opened in 2014.)
Megan Kapler, of Goldin’s group P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now), said in a phone interview after the event that the participants numbered around 70 and included activists from a number of partner organizations as well as medical students from Harvard, New York University (which is home to the Sackler Institute of Graduate Biomedical Sciences), and Boston University. “The medical community is here saying they’re taking a stand against the Sackler and Purdue Pharma influence,” Kapler said.
Protestors threw pill bottles on the floor of the atrium, handed out pamphlets, and held banners and posters with phrases like “MEDICAL STUDENTS AGAINST THE SACKLERS,” and “HARM REDUCTION NOW/TREATMENT NOW.” A number of speakers gave speeches about the Sacklers and the opioid crisis in the atrium, including Jennifer Flynn Walker of the Center for Popular Democracy and Goldin, who began organizing against Purdue and the Sacklers, who are major donors to cultural institutions throughout the United States and Europe, following treatment for opioid addiction last year. She said she became addicted after being prescribed OxyContin in 2014 following wrist surgery.
Earlier this year, Goldin called on the university to refuse donations from the Sackler family and their philanthropic organizations. Today’s action follows similar protests that she has staged with her group, P.A.I.N., and others in the Sackler Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C., P.A.I.N. has demanded that institutions remove signage bearing the Sackler name and refuse future donations from them, that Purdue spend 50 percent of its profits on treatment and harm reduction programs, and that the Sackler family also use their wealth to combat opioid addition.
The Sackler Museum at Harvard opened in 1985 as a venue to house art from before 1200, and was funded by a donation that pharmaceutical entrepreneur Arthur Sackler made in 1982. Arthur Sackler died in 1987, years before the creation of OxyContin, and his widow, Jillian Sackler, has emphasized that his shares in the company that later became Purdue Pharma were subsequently sold to his brothers, Raymond and Mortimer, meaning that his descendants have not benefited from the sale of the drug. “Passing judgment on Arthur’s life’s work through the lens of the opioid crisis some 30 years after his death is a gross injustice,” she has said.
Goldin and other activists have pushed back against that response, arguing that Arthur Sackler developed marketing techniques for Valium and other drugs that have led to the overprescription of various opioids.
Last month, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey filed suit against Purdue and a number of its current and former executives, including members of the Sackler family, alleging that the company had “deceived doctors and patients by misrepresenting the risks of addiction and death associated with the prolonged use of its prescription opioids,” as a Reuters report put it. In 2007, the company pleaded guilty to misleading people about the dangers of OxyContin and paid a fine of more than $600 million.
Purdue has maintained in statements to press that it is concerned about the opioid crisis and committed to fighting it, and said that it has taken steps to ensure that its products are prescribed in responsible ways. Last month, it laid off its entire sales team, which had already previously been cut back. “We share Ms. Goldin’s concerns about the prescription and illicit opioid abuse crisis,” a Purdue spokesperson told T: The New York Times Style Magazine, when it profiled Goldin last month. Reached after the protest, a Purdue rep said by email that the company has “led industry efforts to combat prescription drug abuse” by working with law enforcement, funding drug monitoring programs, and undertaking other initiatives.
The Sackler news front has been busy of late. Earlier this week, seven members of the Sackler family stepped down from Napp Pharmaceuticals, a Purdue sister company based in Cambridge in the United Kingdom, according to the Evening Standard, which in May reported that the family had avoided taxes of hundreds of millions of dollars by means of a Bermuda-based company.
A representative for the Harvard Art Museums declined to comment on the protest, and the university did not immediately reply to request for comment.
As it happens, Goldin, who is 64, grew up in Boston and attended the nearby School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University before moving to New York, where she made her name with images of the Downtown scene there. According to the website for the Harvard Art Museums, Goldin currently has seven works on view there, including an early self-portrait that she shot around 1972 when she would have been not quite 20.
Speaking after the action, Kapler, the P.A.I.N. member, noted that the final demand listed on the pamphlets distributed at today’s protests is for an immediate response from the Sackler family. “We’ll see what happens,” she said.
Update, July 21: A new statement from Purdue was added to this post.