Museum defies rights to Sackler brother’s collection, renaming collection

About 1.3m artefacts seized from display could be renamed in protest against part of the museum collection once owned by Richard Sackler

A leading art museum is altering its name to protest against a major US prison for inmates addicted to opioids, a decision some said would remove a major irritant.

A wider protest against the Sackler family, which once owned the Metropolitan Museum of Art, grew stronger with Thursday’s announcement that the museum is rebranding. The Met said it will stop referring to Richard and Beverly Sackler as owners of the major collection of art that has been held at the museum.

The Sackler collection has been a constant source of controversy ever since the art was seized by US officials in late 1989 when they discovered Sackler brothers’ illicit activities and illegal acts by their companies.

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The Met has long refrained from using the Sackler name even though it is abundantly clear the family still has significant ownership over the collection, which includes numerous pieces by Dutch painter Frans Hals and English furniture maker Thomas Heatherwick.

“To use his name is really not appropriate,” Met Director Thomas Campbell said. “It’s not up to us to educate. We’re there to show. We’re not there to be curators.”

The museum maintains that in January it commissioned American architect Santiago Calatrava to design a new entrance courtyard to create a new identity for the collection. He has also designed a new logo for the museum’s main entrance. The gallery-side walkway is still the Sackler Collection Pavilion, but “the word Sackler will be gone”, said Campbell.

One of the largest art collections in the world, the Sackler collection will be renamed for the next several years to allow for the renaming, its co-curator, Andrew Bolton, said.

Disagreements between the Sackler family and other members of the community were prompted by concerns over the family’s investments in the opioid industry.

Bolton said he and Boltonix Whitney, a curator at the Phillips Collection in Washington DC, applied for the chance to rename the collection in September 2017.

“It was a unanimous decision and we were thrilled with it,” Bolton said. “It’s really a very compassionate and respectful name change.”

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The family owns dozens of assets in health care-related companies including the manufacturer of the painkiller OxyContin, Westray Technologies.

Their philanthropy was valued at $21.2bn in 2014, according to a Chicago Tribune investigation that appeared to mirror an ongoing probe into the sale of OxyContin.

Yet the family, which still has at least $100m worth of shares in Westray and a boat and $265m in American stock, has done little to acknowledge the controversy surrounding it. The family refuses to disclose its holdings.

The Sackler estate was added to an InReach Watchlist of federal prisoners last year, but was removed after an investigation by the Washington Post found that the list had been allegedly improperly compiled.

Clark James Anderson, a co-curator of the collection who helped rewrite the museum’s name for the next five years, said the name “songs the other piece of history. It’s a challenge for us all to remember that we all share the tragedy”.

This article was amended on 7 September 2019 to clarify that Richard Sackler’s contributions to the Met’s collections had been handed over to the museum in June 1988.

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