Anti-opioid protesters target New York's Guggenheim over Sackler family link

Joanna Walters in New York
Pieces of paper are strewn during a protest against the Sackler family at the Guggenheim Museum in New York on Saturday. Photograph: Social Media/Reuters

US art photographer and activist Nan Goldin brought the Guggenheim Museum in New York to a standstill on Saturday night as thousands of fake prescriptions were dropped into the atrium to protest against the institution’s acceptance of donations from the family who owns the maker of OxyContin – the prescription painkiller at the root of America’s opioids crisis.

Tourists and locals gawped in confusion as Goldin and fellow demonstrators began chanting criticism of the Sackler family, who owns Purdue Pharma. The activists handed out fake pill bottles as sheets of paper fluttered down inside the landmark building.

Other protesters unfurled banners from the higher floors, one reading: “Take down their name”, referring to the Sacklers’ links with the institution.

Goldin, who narrowly avoided dying of an opioid overdose after being prescribed OxyContin pills, is campaigning for art and academic institutions in the US and Britain to refuse philanthropy from the multi-billionaire Sacklers .

“I want the Guggenheim and others publicly to disavow themselves from the Sacklers and refuse future funding from them, and I want them to take down the Sackler name from the museums,” she said.

The demonstration also involved Goldin and others lying on the floor of the museum as if dead, surrounded by fake prescriptions for OxyContin.

The protest then moved two blocks south on Fifth Avenue to the steps of the Metropolitan Museum and continued, as the police looked on. The Met has a wing named after the Sacklers and paid for by the family. The Guggenheim features the Sackler Center for Arts Education.

The late Mortimer Sackler and his late brothers Raymond and Arthur created the pharmaceutical company now known as Purdue Pharma, which invented OxyContin. Some of the surviving relatives of Mortimer and Raymond now own the company, which has been accused of using hard-sell tactics on doctors while underplaying the dangers of the drug.

The flurry of papers dropped in the Guggenheim was intended to represent a “blizzard of prescriptions”, Goldin explained. The theme echoed a phrase from court papers in Massachusetts, where Purdue Pharma and some members of the Sackler family are being sued.

Richard Sackler, a son of Raymond, is quoted in court documents as boasting at a party at the launch of OxyContin in 1996 that the drug would be so successful and so well marketed that the event would be “followed by a blizzard of prescriptions that will bury the competition”.

By failing to disavow them now, by refusing to take down their names, the museums are complicit in the opioids crisis

Artist Nan Goldin

Student Alex Viteri, 31, said: “It reminded me of stories of protesters laying down in Wall Street during the Aids epidemic. These institutions all have dirty hands.”

Drug overdoses now kill more than 72,000 people in the US a year – that’s around 200 people every day – according to government figures from the Centers for Disease Control.

The majority of those deaths – 49,000 – are caused by opioids, including prescription painkillers like OxyContin that contain the narcotic oxycodone, or heroin and fentanyl, all of which behave like opium or morphine but are many times more powerful.

Purdue’s business has attracted a wave of lawsuits alleging deception about the safety of OxyContin, which the company had admitted misbranding in a 2007 criminal case.

New York student Aoife Maher, 21, said of the demonstration: “It looks like it’s about ‘Big Pharma’, addressing the Sacklers – I think they’re donors here. They kept prescribing OxyContin and pushing it on doctors.”

She was accompanied by a man named Quin, visiting from New Hampshire, who asked the Guardian withhold his last name.

“Opioids affected my sister and my brother-in-law. He died from it, actually,” Quin said.

He said his brother-in-law had been prescribed OxyContin in Manchester, New Hampshire, which has been severely affected by the opioids crisis, and by the time the prescriptions were stopped he was addicted. He then bought pills on the black market before turning to heroin.

“He died of a mix of heroin and fentanyl,” Quin said.

The protests on Saturday were part of an ongoing campaign created by Goldin last year. In the UK the Victoria & Albert Museum and the Serpentine Gallery in London both have facilities named after the Sacklers, following donations, as do other institutions on both sides of the Atlantic.

Goldin said: “We’re here to call out the Sackler family. By failing to disavow them now, by refusing to take down their names, the museums are complicit in the opioids crisis.”