Take it and Run – Philanthropy, The Sacklers and You

Object to the Sacklers all you like - their donations are essential to preserving our cultural heritage, and offer them little in return

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Should a bad person be allowed to fund good things? Should we insist that they keep money we see as ‘icky’ for themselves, or take it in order to do enriching and real things with it? This is the crux of the debate around the money that the Sackler family – alleged architects of the Opioid Crisis – have given to a number of cultural and educational institutions through their foundation, most notably the National Portrait Gallery, which has recently refused their £1m donation. 

Be honest: if someone had asked if you knew who the Sacklers were three years ago would you have been able to answer? Would you have been able to name where they had donated to, or where might have had a museum wing named after them? As an Oxford student you might have been aware of the library that they help fund, but maybe not that the money comes from the profits of Purdue Pharma, accused by the LA Times of making their main product OxyContin deliberately addictive. It is this controversy that has led groups to call for their donations to be rejected, but to do so is simply virtue-signalling self-flagellation that ultimately harms our cultural heritage.

Opponents to these donations argue that the philanthropy of these families, firms, and individuals is simply what might be called ‘morality laundering’: a way to clean up their name and advertise their products, by associating with large cultural projects that they help to fund. But does this argument really hold? Let’s play a game: Can you name any of the sponsors or benefactors of your favourite museum? The National Gallery, the Ashmolean, or the Science Museum? And even if you knew, would that make you more likely to buy their products, or ignore their negative press? The average person would not – having seen that the British Museum has exhibitions sponsored by BP – say and sincerely believe “oh, BP fund history, maybe their oil spill stuff isn’t as bad as I thought?” 

And therein lies the crux: what these people might think they’re doing is buying some good press, but nobody in the real world actually cares. Barely anyone knows the sponsors, fewer know what these sponsors do, and fewer again are even in the position to buy from them or use their services. What is in fact happening is that these businesses are throwing their (plentiful) profits into funding galleries, museums, libraries, and the places we hold dear to our cultured society in return for… essentially nothing. Why then resist taking their money: So you can stop feeling an ‘ick’ about your Greek or Latin textbook?

However, as well as sponsorship, these ‘protested about’ individuals also occasionally act as trustees on the boards of these institutions. For those of you not au faitwith how these charitable institutions generally operate, essentially the people who become trustees have usually donated a LOT of money over time, and eventually are allowed to sit on the governing body to help with how it runs. What has brought trustees under the spotlight in recent years is the case of Warren Kanders – the Vice-President of the board of Trustees at New York’s Whitney Museum – who also happens to be founder of the arms business ‘Safariland’, leading to bouts of protests there last summer.

 Given the lack of publicity for the work that trustees do and even who they are, we can say neither that Kanders is doing this to rehabilitate his own image, or – especially given that it’s taken more than 10 years on the board for Kanders’ involvement with Safariland to become an issue – that of his company. Why then take issue with his involvement? If someone with lots of money and organisational experience wants to support cutting edge and subversive artists that otherwise might be left by the wayside, then let them – there is simply no avenue for them to take private gain from their charitable work, so no need to worry that by accepting it you are causing a greater harm elsewhere. To object to the help of trustees (financial and practical) too is therefore merely to reduce the effectiveness and quality of our artistic and educational bodies.

And this once more leads us to the one argument that therefore seems left: is a ‘bad person’ allowed to support ‘good things’ like art and education? Throughout history major advances and works have been completed with the support of autocratic rulers and ruthless plutocrats – even Da Vinci was financially supported by the Medici’s and Borgias – and yet what they’ve produced is objectively beautiful. 

There may be a case for refusing donations by those criminally convicted, but to not take the money of those just working in ‘morally questionable’ industries is to let those money-flush rich buggers become even richer for no good reason. Are we really going to insist that their somewhat morally ‘icky’ gains be kept in a Scrooge McDuck style swimming pool, or should it be used to fund cultural enrichment and academic progression as they currently are? 

But even then, another problem arises: which businesses are allowed to be philanthropic? If not arms manufacturers, then also not pharmaceuticals or oil. If not pharmaceuticals, then also not fast food or supermarkets. If not them, do we slide down a slippery slope only allowing auditors of charities to donate? The moral scale is a blurry one, and it may be difficult to stop saying no when we start turning down donations from people like the Sacklers.

If you truly believe that those donating to these organisations should have their money turned away, then you are simply virtue signalling in a way that eventually just denies the cultural sector the much-needed funds that they are simply unable to find elsewhere. These philanthropists have no real route to gain economic or publicity benefits from these donations, so to deny them the chance to donate is to only deny their right to cultural involvement, all while financially restricting these educational and artistic institutions from doing as much as they otherwise could. If you like your museums empty, your libraries deserted, and your galleries plain, then fine – enjoy your dull existence. But if you think the soul needs something other than food, drink and shelter to survive, then we have to accept philanthropy, even if it is from the Sacklers or BP. It might initially seem a little objectionable, but when examined clearly, it is most certainly for the best. 

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