By ANTHONY HADEN-GUEST July 2019
An Associated Press photographer got some telling shots in the Sackler Wing of Oriental Antiquities in the Louvre Museum, Paris, last Wednesday. One shows a plaque, taped over to conceal the names of the donors to the wing, the Sackler family. Another is of an empty space where a board had listed Sackler family members. Just holes remain.
The Sacklers have been active in the arts, as both collectors and donors, for decades. Now, as the owners of Purdue Pharma, they stand accused of aggressively marketing OxyContin in the face of an opioid epidemic said to have taken 400,000 lives. They are the target both of many lawsuits and the attention of the activist group, PAIN – Prescription Addiction Intervention Now – set up by Nan Goldin, the photographer, herself a former addict. The Louvre is the first institution to have physically erased the Sackler name but those that have declared that they will no longer accept their money include the Guggenheim and the Met in Manhattan and both the Tate and the National Portrait Gallery in London.
The National Portrait Gallery is also having a problem with their annual portrait competition. This was sponsored by a tobacco company when it launched in 1980. That ended when the UK moved to ban cigarette advertising and in 1989 the sponsorship was taken over by British Petroleum. At the beginning of the month 78 artists, including Allen Jones, Gavin Turk, Gillian Wearing, Rachel Whiteread and Anish Kapoor, signed a letter to Nicholas Cullinan, the director, asking that the gallery stop laundering the image of a huge exploiter of fossil fuels. Opioids, like cigarettes, are merely culling the species. Fossil fuels may terminate it.
There’s more. Eight artists have asked for their work to be withdrawn from the Whitney Biennial because a museum’s board member, Warren B. Kanders, owns the Safariland Group, who make law-enforcement material, such as teargas. This Monday’s news is that teargas was just used on protesters in Puerto Rico. So museums are increasingly battle zones in our trigger-finger times. It’s led me to think about the origins of that most tranquil of Manhattan museums, the Frick.
Henry Clay Frick, the Gilded Age industrialist and art collector, worked for a while with another industrialist/collector, Andrew Carnegie. Frick was managing a major Carnegie steel mill in Homestead, Pennsylvania, when their contract with the union, the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers, was due to be renegotiated and Carnegie, who was in Scotland, instructed Frick to break the union.
Frick ran a fence topped with barbed wire around the plant, fired the workers and hired 300 Pinkerton agents who arrived on a couple of barges early in the morning of July 6 1892. Thousands of workers rushed to the pier, many armed, and the fight continued for twelve hours. By the time the Pinkertons surrendered at least three of them and seven workers had been killed. The governor of the state sent in 8000 militia, and broke the strike. The union was dead.
Frick’s alliance with Carnegie ended badly. They didn’t speak for twenty years. Carnegie sent a letter from his deathbed, asking to see him. "Yes, you can tell Carnegie I'll meet him," Frick told the messenger. "Tell him I'll see him in Hell, where we both are going.”
Henry Clay Frick left both his art and town house to the public. Hence the Frick. There’s a Roman saying, attributed to the Emperor Vespasian: Pecunia non olet. Money doesn’t stink. That money, however stinkily it was acquired, has to go somewhere. Why not to art museums where it might actually spread some knowledge, give a lot of pleasure? Well, the Homestead Strike occurred in a different past, OxyContin is our ugly present, climate changes our uglier future. The answer is no. The art world will become even more a battle zone, I think. WM
*Since this article was published Kanders resigned from the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Anthony Haden-Guest is an internationally known writer and artist.
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