The Serpentine Sackler Gallery

Museums urged to distance themselves from Sackler name

Geraldine Kendall Adams, 17.04.2019
Ethical sponsorship saga raises difficult questions for the sector
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

Comments

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20.04.2019, 10:06
Museums cannot in fact afford not to take a hard line on ethical issues. Museums enjoy wide public support because their work of looking after a nation's heritage and identity is regarded as vital and this forms the basis of their good reputation. If their reputation becomes tarnished by them being associated with anything that is regarded even remotely unethical, this public support will disappear and the consequences of this can be imagined. Museums cannot be seen to be white-washing institutions for the rich and powerful.
20.04.2019, 10:05
Museums cannot in fact afford not to take a hard line on ethical issues. Museums enjoy wide public support because their work of looking after a nation's heritage and identity is regarded as vital and this forms the basis of their good reputation. If their reputation becomes tarnished by them being associated with anything that is regarded even remotely unethical, this public support will disappear and the consequences of this can be imagined. Museums cannot be seen to be white-washing institutions for the rich and powerful.
Anonymous
19.04.2019, 11:19
Most museums in the UK would never get the chance to even apply for grants from these families. As manager of an independent museum as soon as I heard the offered money had been turned down I looked on the Sackler website - you have to be referred to them. You cannot just apply. Does anyone have any advice on how a small museum in the middle of England with no fund raising team can get referred?
Anonymous
18.04.2019, 12:33
This is such a difficult issue. I don't think there is a right answer. There are probably almost no millionaires who've made their money by being honest, ethical, principled and above board, even if it was not them personally who were the pirates/drug dealers etc but their ancestors 300 years ago! Will the Notre Dame committee ask how the billionaires who have offered such huge donations towards the cathedral came by their vast fortunes, and how much tax they didn't pay? Probably not! But without those massive donations, the cathedral won't get rebuilt. So what can you do?

Having read up about the opioid crisis recently though, it does sound as though the Sacklers played a pretty nasty role in the whole thing, even if nothing criminal has been proven yet. This is a scandal which is recent, has gone on under the noses of us all, and has been responsible at least in part, for terrible things happening. I can well understand how museums such as NPG might not want to take their money anymore. I wouldn't, in their place. Even though there'll never be enough public funding to compensate.