Gifts Tied to Opioid Sales Invite a Question: Should Museums Vet Donors?

But few institutions seem concerned that the money they have received may be tied, in some way, to a family fortune partly built on the sale of opioids.

The New York Times surveyed 21 cultural organizations listed on tax forms as having received significant sums from foundations run by two Sackler brothers who led Purdue. Several, including the Guggenheim, declined to comment; others, like the Brooklyn Museum, ignored questions. None indicated that they would return donations or refuse them in the future.

“We regularly assess our funding activities to ensure best practice,” wrote Zoë Franklin, a spokeswoman for the Victoria and Albert Museum, which was listed as receiving about $13.1 million from the Dr. Mortimer and Theresa Sackler Foundation in 2012. “The Sackler family continue to be an important and valuable donor to the V & A and we are grateful for their ongoing support.”

To what degree are cultural institutions responsible for vetting every dollar they receive? Can financially strapped arts organizations be picky about a patron’s source of wealth, and if so, where should they draw the line? At a donor who engages in unlawful or unethical behavior? Or whose conduct is at odds with the institution’s goals?

Photo

Raymond Sackler, right, who died in July, with his wife, Beverly.

Credit
Taco van der Eb/Hollandse Hoogte, Redux

The issue stretches back to the days of Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick and the Rockefellers, cultural philanthropists whose sources of income were characterized at some point as monopolistic, or anti-union or harmful to the environment.

In 2015, to name a more recent example, some critics called for museums of science and natural history to cut ties with fossil fuel companies and philanthropists like David H. Koch, whose foundation has financed groups that went on to oppose legislation related to climate change or refer to “global warming hysteria.” (When Mr. Koch stepped down from the American Museum of Natural History’s board the following year, the museum said the decision was not prompted by the protests.)

But museums have shown an unwillingness to return money or end a philanthropic relationship.

“Historically, museum audiences have not shown evidence of being terribly concerned about sources of income for museums,” said Susie Wilkening, a museum consultant in Seattle. “Especially if there is no…

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