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Sackler/Kanders: My 1978 ARTnews Exposé on Met’s Sackler Enclave (plus: my takes on opioids, tear gas)

It’s time for me to re-up my September 1978 ARTnews investigation into the Metropolitan Museum’s secret Sackler enclave, in the context of the recent news that the Met “will stop accepting gifts from members of the Sackler family linked to the maker of OxyContin” (in the words of today’s NY Times report).

My piece zeroed in on the “good” Sackler—the oldest brother, Arthur, a major collector of Far Eastern art who had nothing to do with OxyContin, having died before it was born.

Arthur Sackler with His Collection
Photo from
Sackler Gallery website

While unrelated to medical ethics, the Met’s now defunct Sackler enclave—a 600-square-foot office and storage space (which I visited) on the museum’s premises, run by his personal curator and housing prime examples from the psychiatrist/publisher’s private collection of Far Eastern art—was arguably an infraction of museum ethics. The Met countenanced this secret arrangement beginning in 1966 under three successive directors—James Rorimer, Tom Hoving, Philippe de Montebello.

Because my magazine piece was written in the journalistic dark ages when articles weren’t online, I recently scanned my yellowing hardcopy to generate my own link. Thanks to the ARTnews editors, who graciously granted me permission to do this, you can now read my entire piece here: The Met’s Sackler Enclave: Public Boon or Private Preserve?. If you look closely, you may spot the most embarrassing typo in anything I’ve ever written. (How that whopper, near the end, made it into print, I will never understand.)

Here’s an excerpt from the beginning, pegged to a news development that occurred while I was researching the 1978 piece:

The New York State Attorney General’s office has launched an investigation into a storage area at the Metropolitan Museum of Art—the Sackler enclave—to determine whether its functions constitute an improper use of the museum’s space and resources….

Interviews with Met officials indicate that the enclave owes its existence, in large part, to the Met’s hope of eventually receiving as a gift from Sackler some or all of the objects in the enclave [emphasis added]. These would be installed in the museum’s new Sackler Wing, housing the Temple of Dendur, which opens later this month.

The Sackler Wing opened as planned and still exists, but the Met never got to install Arthur’s collection there. Instead, it went to the Smithsonian’s purpose-built Sackler Gallery, contiguous with its Freer Gallery.

As I mentioned in A Hole in the Heart, my December 1982 ARTnews follow-up to my original Sackler piece, “The Smithsonian deal might never have happened if Sackler’s relationship with the Met had not gone sour.” I’ve always had very mixed feelings about the role that my piece may have played in that falling-out. What I wrote, while journalistically appropriate, was culturally costly to New York.

As I wrote in my follow-up piece:

Sackler is said to have been extremely annoyed [euphemism for “pissed off”] at the Met’s failure to protect him from investigations by the press [i.e., me] and and the New York State Attorney General into his unusual storage arrangement at the Met. The attorney general found no wrongdoing on Sackler’s part, but did find that the Met had been lax about keeping track of the Sackler enclave’s objects and operations.

As for the current Sacker-Met contretemps, it seems to me that there’s a big “hole in the heart” of both the Met’s statement yesterday regarding its suspension of “gifts from members of the Sackler family presently associated with Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of OxyContin” and its newly amended Gift Acceptance Guidelines, which lay out a procedure for reviewing prospective gifts but say nothing about what types of misdeeds by donors might render their gifts unacceptable.

Suspending future Sackler gifts is closing the door after the horse has left the barn. More surprisingly, the updated Gift Acceptance Guidelines provide no specific guidance related to the current hot-button issue: whether and what kinds of donors’ misdeeds could put their gifts off-limits.

Lacking a clear Met Standard, here’s my proposed CultureGrrl Standard, as laid down in my tweet about the Whitney Museum’s Kanders Controversy:

This is a looser standard than what many activists would favor, but I agree with this statement by Met President Dan Weiss, as quoted by Elizabeth Harris in today’s NY Times:

We are not a partisan organization, we are not a political organization, so we don’t have a litmus test for whom we take gifts from based on policies or politics.”

Dan Weiss, speaking at a press conference in the Met’s Sackler Wing
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The Sackler enclave, run by the would-be donor’s personal curator (responsible to him, not to Met’s officials), failed my test of “leaving professional decisions to the museum’s professionals.”

The Warren Kanders contretemps is a different story: The closest the Whitney board member has come to being “charged with a crime” (by activists, not by prosecutors) pertains to his companies’ manufacture of tear gas canisters and bullets deployed against civilians.

As much as I abhor how the products of Kanders’ company’s have sometimes been used, I don’t believe that disqualifies him as a Whitney board member. (I’m almost 100% certain that reasonable, impassioned activists will disagree.)

I have, of course, grappled with the attack on Kanders and his companies in “Triple Chaser,” the video by Forensic Architecture, which the Whitney open-mindedly (but masochistically) included in its Biennial, opening tomorrow. (More on that in a subsequent post.)

Screenshot from “Triple Chaser” by Forensic Architecture
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

For what it’s worth, here’s what I think about the latest Sackler attacks: If it’s reasonable to believe (as alleged in a court filing quoted in the NY Times, but denied by the Sacklers) that “members of the Sackler family, which owns the company that makes OxyContin, directed years of efforts to mislead doctors and patients about the dangers of the powerful opioid painkiller,” that should be a donor deal-killer.

It’s not that I’m against the product itself: I’ve briefly taken OxyContin that, many years ago, was prescribed to me for severe herniated-disk pain. I fully understood back then that it could be addictive, if abused. I’ve also (as I’ve previously written) been tear-gassed thrice (although at some distance). It was no fun, but I suffered only fleeting consequences, not the severe possible side-effects enumerated in “Triple Chaser.”

But willful deception in marketing OxyContin, in an effort to boost profits (while recklessly ruining lives) would, if true, be a donor deal-killer.

All of which is to say that there are important but sometimes subtle distinctions to be made (which may be disregarded by impassioned demonstrators and social-media combatants) in coming to terms with these vexing situations.

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