Last week, the German artist Hito Steyerl became the latest high-profile figure to urge cultural institutions to disentangle themselves from the Sackler family, who have donated millions to museums and galleries around the world.
Speaking at a preview of her exhibition at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, Steyerl said the institution should find a legal way to remove the Sackler name and sever links with the family, several of whom are being sued for their alleged role in the US opioid crisis. They deny all allegations of wrongdoing.
“Imagine being married to a serial killer and wanting a divorce; it shouldn’t be a problem to get a divorce,” Steyerl is reported to have said.
The Serpentine itself confirmed last week that it would no longer take funding from the Sackler Trust. It follows the National Portrait Gallery, which recently chose not to proceed with a £1m grant towards its upcoming redevelopment after being threatened with boycott by the US photographer Nan Goldin, who is in recovery from opioid addiction. It recently emerged that the South London Gallery in Camberwell had also turned down a £100,000 gift from the Sackler Trust last year. The trust has now temporarily suspended all donations.
The increasing toxicity of the Sackler name is an indication of the growing clout that high-profile campaigns and protests about ethical sponsorship are having. Anti-oil groups achieved another victory recently when Edinburgh Science Festival announced it would no longer take sponsorship from fossil fuel companies – months after several organisations dropped out of the Manchester Science Festival in protest at the sponsorship of the Science and Industry Museum’s festival exhibition by the oil corporation Shell.
But these recent developments have ignited a polarised debate over sponsorship, with some calling for the culture sector to formulate an overarching ethical funding policy and others questioning whether cash-strapped cultural institutions can afford to take such a hard line on ethical issues.
On a recent debate on BBC4’s Front Row, the cultural commentator Tiffany Jenkins slammed the Sackler situation as “virtue signalling that in the long run will be detrimental to arts funding”, warning that it could scare off potential funders concerned about reputational damage. “It essentially says a minority of activists can make the decisions for us. It makes everything more politicised than it needs to be,” she added.
Responding to Jenkins on the programme, the chair of the Museums Association’s ethics committee, Heledd Fychan, said such decisions weren’t “taken on a whim”, emphasising that they were considered on the basis of “institutional integrity and relationship with the public”. The ethics committee has seen a rise in queries about ethical funding since “huge reductions” in public funding had forced museums to seek alternative sources, added Fychan.
The issue is a complex one, however; others have questioned whether any source of money, public or private, can ever truly be described as “clean”. One small museum, which campaigns on social justice issues, recently told Museums Journal that it deliberately chooses not to accept government funding because of both the actions of the current government and a desire to be free to criticise those policies.
Because museums have such a diverse range of purposes, most believe it would be impractical to introduce ethical red lines. But a majority in the sector would undoubtedly welcome a more solid foundation of public funding to relieve the pressure museums are under to make these choices. As Fychan said: “We have to ensure that that base level of [public] funding is there so museums are able to act ethically and maintain their integrity.”
The theme of the 2019 Museums Association conference in Brighton is Sustainable and Ethical Museums in a Globalised World. Click here to find out more