Consumers of culture will have been aware of the name “Sackler” above the frame of rooms and galleries in artistic institutions around the world. I remember once briefly wondering, when ducking under such an arch, how they had made the money that permitted such extensive philanthropy.
Now everyone knows. The photographer Nan Goldin has advertised demonstrations outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Guggenheim Museum in New York and threatened to withdraw a planned exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London, in protest at the institutions receiving donations from the Sacklers.
The objection is that the wealth of those members of the Sackler family being targeted by the protests derives from a stake in OxyContin, a strong opioid painkiller that has been implicated in thousands of deaths from addiction or overdose. Following this scrutiny, the Sacklers have withdrawn a £1m handout that was held up in the NPG’s ethics committee, which decides whether the promised dosh is “in conflict with the objectives and values of the gallery”. The Tate galleries soon announced that they would no longer take Sackler cash.
There has been a discernible glee at the institutions having become purer, if also poorer, similar to the smack of satisfaction in literary circles when the Man Group hedge fund recently decided to drop its sponsorship of the Booker prize, possibly due to frequent criticism from writers uneasy about the collision of books and book-keeping.
As OxyContin is literally so toxic, it can be seen as an extreme test-case. But just as the controversy over the conduct of Harvey Weinstein led to hunts for similar alleged offenders, the Sacklers will surely not be the last philanthropists to face sacking.
And, in the quick and vicious audit of the source of gallery and museum donations and sponsorship, it will be easy to find unethical specks on the hands that wrote the philanthropic cheques.
What would count as an acceptable way of having become rich enough to have some spare to dish out to the arts? Sponsorship by BP and Nestlé has been questioned because of environmental or ethical concerns about the nature of the patrons’ business. Airlines, which have consistently been generous to the arts, are now on the wrong side of history, as, in a post-crash era queasy about capitalism, are most makers of money.
Watching what has happened to the Sacklers, I began to fear for Sir Lloyd Dorfman, one of the most generous cultural benefactors in Britain. His private subsidising of the Royal Opera House, Royal Academy and National Theatre has been so extensive that the NT even renamed an auditorium the Dorfman.
The original source of the fortune was foreign exchange dealing. There is no suggestion that Dorfman’s success in this field ever involved impropriety, but legality and decency might not be enough to prevent his largesse being queried.
The new puritans among the producers and consumers of arts do not rely on financial audit or legal due diligence but on a subjective sniff test. It would be surprising if their delicate moral nostrils entirely approved of someone becoming super-rich by swapping one currency for another.
The big concern is how holes in the coffers left by a donor-wash will be filled. The Old Vic theatre in London, for instance, has received several payouts from the Sacklers and, receiving no direct state funding, would surely struggle if forced to close off that source.
And if the funding of buildings and exhibitions is subject to ethical scrutiny, then why not their content as well?
The “objectives and values” of the various national and royal artistic institutions, policed by their ethics committees, seem unlikely to include paedophilia, incest, rape, fraud, racism or fascism and yet you do not have to lose much shoe leather in their halls to come across a creative figure who has been implicated in one or more of those sins.
The usual defence of continuing to tolerate the work of a controversial creative is that great artists are rarely great people, and, on the issue of arts patronage, the equally sensible position is that all money is to some extent dirty, especially when microscopically examined from a perspective inherently suspicious of riches and defining philanthropy as, an accusation made against the Sacklers, “reputation laundering”.
It seems unlikely that many contemporary winners of Nobel prizes are actively enthusiastic about dynamite and armaments, the cash from which set up the foundation that now honours titans of thinking. It must be particularly odd for recipients of the peace prize to reflect on where the money came from, yet laureates presumably take the view that the somewhat bloodied money can now be put to purer use. This attitude is understandable and might offer a model for the response of artists and gallery-goers haunted by the provenance of the wonga that allows the institutions to put on the shows.
At the end of this process of ethical cleansing looms the spectre of a museum that, after returning exhibits to the owners from whom they were looted by colonising collectors, and sending to the storerooms works by artists whose behaviour offends the morals of today, stands completely empty. And, above the doors of those barren galleries, the wood is chipped and discoloured from the emergency removal of the names of those donors whose wealth or values risk gathering pickets outside exhibitions.
If, unsurprisingly, the Sacklers now take their money elsewhere and are followed out of the boardroom doors by other philanthropists concerned that their bank accounts will be found to lack sufficient moral underpinning, then it will be our cultural institutions – and, as a consequence of their funding poverty, artists and gallery-goers – that suffer a pain from which, in a state that increasingly encourages the arts to seek private funding, there will be no easy relief.
• Mark Lawson is a writer and broadcaster