The ethics of the private patronage of arts institutions has never been straightforward issue. But as the preoccupation with transparency and corporate responsibility has grown, wealthy benefactors can nowadays turn from pillars of respectable society to moral pariahs in the blink of an eye. Such is the fate of the fabulously rich Sackler family, major philanthropists with fingers in arts institutions across the UK, in the face of mounting criticism over its close links to Purdue Pharma, the family-owned US pharmaceuticals giant and maker of the opioid painkiller OxyContin – the drug now the focus of outrage over the opioid epidemic that has made addicts of thousands in the US over the last two decades.
Since legendary American photographer Nan Goldin, herself a recovered OxyContin addict and now a ferocious campaigner against the Sacklers’ munificence among US institutions, had threatened to pull her anticipated retrospective at the National Portrait Gallery for its earlier acceptance of a Sackler gift, the issue has snowballed in the UK. The NPG last week declared it had decided to turn down the pledged money, and it wasn’t long before other art venues hastily declared similar decisions – the Tate announced it would no longer seek the Sacklers funds, while the South London Gallery revealed it had already decided to decline funding last year. It’s likely that other organisations will follow suit. Perhaps in anticipation, the Sackler Foundation and Trust have now each announced that they have suspended all further funding for the time being.
The rush to ditch all connection with the Sackler is something of a panic for a cultural sector that has been a happy recipient of such patronage for years – the Sackler name hangs over the doors of galleries and museums nationwide. While the OxyContin scandal should provoke justified outrage, the rush to dissociate from Sacker money reflects the growing politicisation of the arts sector in the last decade, and the growing hypersensitivity toward complicity-by-association that now attends every discussion of private patronage of the arts. As the Times’s art critic Waldemar Janusczak enthused, ‘art should always strive to be on the side of the angels. When it isn’t, it needs calling out.’
Art should strive to be the best art it can for its audience. Confusing art with its institutions, the urge to be ‘on the side of the angels’ says more about how many now view the artworld as a place to demonstrate, publicly and ostentatiously, their political and ethical correctness, regardless of the content of the what these institutions present. But from BAE Systems withdrawing its support of last year’s Great Northern Exhibition (BAE is a big employer in the region), or the Design Museum being boycotted by exhibiting artists for renting out a gallery to another arms company for a private function, or the Tate giving in to years of protests by anti-oil environmentalists over BP’s longstanding sponsorship deal, art venues have become ethical battlegrounds and no-go zones for issues and entities deemed beyond the pale of right-thinking activism.
That activism relies on the exaggerated assumption that private sponsorship has ever really had much effect on the wider public. But in an increasingly shrill and conformist culture, the arts are fast becoming just one more vehicle through which to strike moral poses, regardless of whether they have much real effect. It suggests a naïve, defensive sentiment that the ‘cultural’ world should be a purer, untainted place, expunged of the compromises and shortcomings of the outside world. After all, arms are still made, oil is still pumped, profits still accrue. But we’d rather that didn’t touch us here, so we don’t have to feel too guilty about of it ourselves.
JJ Charlesworth is senior editor at Art Review