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The cynical bargain of robber baron philanthropy


I just received my copy of Patrick Radden Keefe’s Empire of Pain, an expansion of his splendid New Yorker article from a few years ago. One particular plutocratic twist of this grim story of the Gilded Age 2.0 is how the Sacklers have tried to use philanthropy as a morality car wash for the immense profits they’ve reaped from intentionally destroyed lives:

By the time I moved to New York City in 2016, the Sackler family had practically painted my new home with its name. The Brooklyn Museum is home to the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. (Elizabeth, a descendant of Arthur, routinely insists that she has not directly profited from the sale of OxyContin. Others argue persuasively that all Sacklers are complicit in the opioid crisis.) There is a Sackler wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, whose origins Keefe examines at length. Arthur Sackler’s relationship with Met began with an unusual arrangement: a family enclave in a public space. This arrangement subverted the original mission of the Met — in Keefe’s words, that it would “be free and open to the public, but subsidized by gifts from the rich” — and the museum’s staff originally had no access to the enclave. Sackler even installed a lock to keep them out.

As atypical as his early agreement with the Met might have been, Sackler understood something profound about the nature of philanthropy. It is distinct both from charity and from welfare. Arthur’s own attorney, Michael Sonnenreich, is quoted bluntly articulating its real qualities: “If you put your name on something it is not charity, it’s philanthropy. You get something for it. If you want your name on it, it’s a business deal.” A person does not have to be a committed political observer to hear something of Trump in the statement, even though Trump himself is no philanthropic giant. Under capitalism, everything can be business. Philanthropy embraces this fact, promising wealthy men like Arthur Sackler the immortality they crave.


There is a price to giving families like the Sacklers the public-relations boost they desire. With time, the universities and museums that once gladly took Sackler money learned exactly how high that price would be. Nan Goldin taught them. The artist, who says she became addicted to OxyContin after a doctor prescribed it to her for wrist surgery, forced the art world to reckon with the Sackler legacy. With PAIN, her collective, she took the fight directly to the museums and galleries that still took Sackler money and put the Sackler name on the walls. “Temple of greed! Temple of Oxy!,” PAIN once activists shouted inside the Met. Arthur Sackler may have won his bid for immortality. The Sackler wing even still bears his name. His legacy, though, will be quite different from what he’d dreamed.

Spare a brief thought for the Sacklers: No fortune is innocent. There could be a hundred books like Empire of Pain, each scrutinizing the coffers of a different super-wealthy family, and the revelations would be sordid. The opioid crisis makes unique monsters of the Sacklers, but they aren’t the only ghouls around. Labor exploitation and unsavory connections to the business right are profitable, and they frequently lay the foundation for great familial wealth. This country concluded long ago that it would trade the public good for whatever largesse its tycoons would shed. Through philanthropy, the Sacklers took advantage of all that capitalism could offer.

That there’s nothing new or unique about Sacklers shouldn’t make the story any less infuriating.

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