In 2017, one of the great American photographers, Nan Goldin, was recovering from an addiction to the painkiller OxyContin when she learned that the maker of the drug, Purdue Pharma, was owned by the billionaire Sackler family. The Sacklers were famous for their philanthropy, their name engraved on the walls of the most illustrious art museums in the world: the Met, the British Museum, the Louvre. Goldin was indignant. Given the family’s connection to the opioid crisis, how could the art world have allowed them to launder their reputation?
She launched an audacious campaign to shame museums into cutting ties with the Sacklers, designing a series of elaborately choreographed protests. With her impeccable eye and the zeal of a survivor, Goldin framed each protest like a photograph. It worked: she placed a burning spotlight on the family, who recently reached settlements requiring them to pay $6 billion to help remediate the crisis. She pioneered a powerful new form of activism and started an urgent conversation about tainted money in the arts. And sure enough, one by one, museums began removing the Sackler name—because, through Goldin’s work, it had become a byword for infamy.
Keefe is a journalist and author, most recently of Empire of Pain
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