Who Funds Museums? (And Why It Matters)

By Thaara Sumithra Shankar, ’19

Donors occupy an important role in the functioning of a museum, providing funds for new programs and spaces, as well as donating works to the collection. Museums in turn tailor themselves to the needs and validation of their donors by endowing spaces and titles, hosting special events, and affording certain privileges to donors, such as the right to rent a museum for one’s private or corporate events. While museums rely on private funding to maintain operations, they must be aware of the potential disparity between institutional and donor values and any implications in accepting donations from particular sources.

The ongoing crisis with the art world’s relationship with the Sackler family provides an opportunity to examine the ethics involved in museum/donor relationships. As pointed out by Hyperallergic, the Sackler family has ties to myriad museums in the United States and Europe, from funding education centers to entire wings of museums. This becomes problematic as the past few years have revealed an undeniable link between Purdue Pharma, the company owned by the Sackler family, and the opioid crises. The company, which distributes OxyContin, previously withheld information about how addictive the drug is.[1]

The artist Nan Goldin has created the group Prescription Addiction Intervention Now (PAIN), calling on museums to break their relationship with the Sackler family.[2] Goldin was addicted to opioids for several years, and has been sober for a year.[3] Throughout her addiction and process towards sobriety, she documented her experience. Elizabeth A. Sackler, the daughter of Arthur M. Sackler, is supporting Nan Goldin’s project.[4] Elizabeth A. Sackler’s father died in 1995, after which his share of the company was sold. All of this occurred before his brothers Raymond and Mortimer Sackler began to manufacture OxyContin via Purdue Pharma.[5]

This issue of conflicting values extends to board membership, where problems can arise when a board member’s values lie in direct opposition to the institution, potentially compromising the museum’s mission. At the American Museum of Natural History in New York, Rebekah Mercer, a climate change denier, holds that very position. It is easy to see how Mercer’s stance may conflict with a natural history museum, and as a result, protests have erupted over the matter. At the end of January, a group of more than 200 scholars wrote an open letter to the museum, calling for Mercer’s removal because her beliefs are antithetical to the mission of the museum.[6] Curators have joined in the effort and written to senior administration within the museum.[7] Museums often face outside criticism, however, it becomes even more of an issue when the staff critiques the institution from within. What must be at stake when curators put themselves at risk of being fired in order to defend the ethos of the institution? How can the museum stay credible if it receives funding and gives power through a board seat, to someone who does not believe in climate change?
Realistically, though, managing donations and donor relations is not an easy task. If museums were to change or remove plaques etc., other donors might be alarmed, causing unwanted reverberations, such as less sponsorship as well as donating less works. Unsavory donors are not novel; many of the major museums in the United States were sustained by robber barons who became wealthy off of exploitations of others. If we were to look at the personal histories of funders, many would not match with the values of the museums they gave to. I am not really sure if there is a way for museums to publicly acknowledge the nefarious businesses of some of their donors without severing relationships. In order to combat this issue, museums need to think carefully about how they are represented through their relationships with others. While they may not be able to comment or change their relationships with donors now deceased, they should think critically about where current funding comes from and who should be on the board.

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[1] Benjamin Sutton, “Elizabeth A. Sackler Supports Nan Goldin in Her Campaign Against OxyContin,” Hyperallergic, January 22, 2018. https://hyperallergic.com/422738/elizabeth-sackler-nan-goldin-opioid-epidemic/

[2] Andrew Russeth, “Nan Goldin, P.A.I.N. Group Stage Protest Against Sackler Family, Purdue Pharmaceuticals in Met’s Sackler Wing,”Art News, March 10, 2018. http://www.artnews.com/2018/03/10/nan-goldin-p-n-group-stage-protest-sackler-family-purdue-pharmaceuticals-mets-sackler-wing/

[3] Nan Goldin, “Nan Goldin,” Artforum, January, 2018. https://www.artforum.com/print/201801/nan-goldin-73181

[4] Benjamin Sutton, “Elizabeth A. Sackler Supports Nan Goldin in Her Campaign Against OxyContin,” Hyperallergic, January 22, 2018. https://hyperallergic.com/422738/elizabeth-sackler-nan-goldin-opioid-epidemic/

[5] Andrew Russeth, “Nan Goldin, P.A.I.N. Group Stage Protest Against Sackler Family, Purdue Pharmaceuticals in Met’s Sackler Wing,”Art News, March 10, 2018. http://www.artnews.com/2018/03/10/nan-goldin-p-n-group-stage-protest-sackler-family-purdue-pharmaceuticals-mets-sackler-wing/

[6] Robin Pogrebin and Somini Sengupta, “A Science Denier at the Natural History Museum? Scientists Rebel,” New York Times, January 25, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/25/climate/rebekah-mercer-natural-history-museum.html

[7] Robin Pogrebin, “Curators at Museum of Natural History Object to a Trustee,” New York Times, January 26, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/26/arts/design/natural-history-museum-rebekah-mercer.html

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