This afternoon, in the Sackler Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, a mother and daughter threw coins into its reflecting pool while a couple posed for engagement photos in front of the Temple of Dendur, the man in red pants and gray blazer, the woman in a black jumpsuit. A long line snaked out of the temple. It was tranquil, most people speaking in a whisper. That grand space has such an effect on people.
By about 4 p.m., though, an oddly large group of people had formed along the wing’s pools, and it quickly kept getting larger. At around 4:10 p.m., heads turned as the photographer Nan Goldin entered, unmissable with her curly red hair. She walked up to some of the people congregating, and there was some discussion. And then it began.
Many people along the pool suddenly began to throw pill bottles into the water—there were scores of the little plastic containers—as others whipped out black banners, one reading “FUND REHAB,” the other “SHAME ON SACKLER.” Goldin, brandishing white type-written pages, spoke and the crowd echoed her. She said at one point, “In the name of the dead, Sackler family . . . use your profits, save our lives.”
Some people handed out flyers that were designed to look like official Met materials, but were emblazoned with the abbreviation P.A.I.N., for Prescription Addiction Intervention Now, the group that Goldin has started to put pressure on Purdue Pharmaceuticals, the makers of OxyContin, and some members of the Sackler Family, who are reportedly the company’s principal owners. The group is calling for them to fund treatment programs and take other steps to combat the opioid crisis.
The flyers contain statistics about the crisis, like “130 people die a day from opioid overdoses,” “at least 200,000 people have died since 1999 from overdoses involving opioid painkillers,” “$35 billion—Purdue profits from OxyContin, the nation’s bestselling painkiller.” It also includes a list of demands, among them that the Sackler Family and Purdue should invest 46 percent of their profits toward ending the epidemic, and that they should “advertise the dangers of their products as aggressively as they sell them to the public.”
Purdue, which in 2007 paid a fine of more than $600 million for falsely stating that OxyContin is less addictive than other painkillers, has maintained that it has acted properly in marketing the drug, that it has taken concrete steps to curtail abuse, and that it funds programs that promote treatment and abuse prevention.
Tourists gawked, some took pamphlets, and members of the protest group answered questions. Meanwhile, some Met guards gamely asked people not to touch the artifacts while at least one attempted to usher the large group out of the museum. But they did not intend to move quickly. “Die!” Goldin cried, and people began to fall to the ground along one side of the pool. Goldin collapsed to the ground as well.
This was Goldin’s first major public action since she began her public opposition to Perdue in January, when she published an essay and portfolio in Artforum in which she discussed becoming addicted to opioids after being prescribed OxyContin following a surgery, and going clean only after two-and-a-half months in rehab. “The Sacklers made their fortune promoting addiction,” Goldin wrote, adding later that “the Sackler family and their private company, Purdue, built their empire with the lives of hundreds of thousands. The bodies are piling up. In 2015, in the U.S. alone, more than thirty-three thousand people died from opioid overdoses.”
Later in the month, a New York Times article detailed Goldin’s battle with addiction, which involved her at one point overdosing of heroin and fentanyl, as well as her burgeoning protest efforts. After handing out leaflets at the women’s march on the anniversary of the inauguration of President Trump, she suggested, “we’ll go to the Museum of Natural History or the Guggenheim.”
The Sackler Wing came about when Arthur M. Sackler was approached by the museum in 1973 about funding the expansion project, and he brought on his brothers Mortimer and Raymond Sackler, who were all in business together. Elizabeth A. Sackler, a daughter of Arthur M. Sackler, who died in 1987, has stated support for Goldin’s cause, saying that, by the time Oxycontin was introduced in 1995, Raymond and Mortimer were the main owners of Purdue, and that none of the philanthropy done by Arthur’s portion of the family has used money from the sale of Oxycontin. (The Met declined to comment.)
After a few minutes, with the die-in concluded, the group marched out through the Met’s galleries for Egyptian art, accompanied by guards, chanting all the way. They made their way to the front steps. Goldin stood in front of a banner, held a pill bottle out in one hand, and continued her speech, the protestors gathered around her.
As she concluded, she said, “We are just getting started! Read the facts! Read the stats! We’ll be back!”
This post will be updated.