Spurning the Sacklers’ Money Seems Easy Now, But…

Funny things can happen at arts organizations when an economy goes into a tailspin.

It's easy to be moral when times are good. Remember that.

There are two salient quotes in the May 16 New York Times op-ed by Anand Giridharadas, which takes as its cue the announcement by Daniel H. Weiss, president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to reject any future largesse from the opioid-profiting Sackler family:

‘No amount of charity in spending such fortunes can compensate in any way for the misconduct in acquiring them,’ Theodore Roosevelt said after John D. Rockefeller proposed starting a foundation in 1909.


When I speak privately with people working in nonprofits, as I often do, especially younger people, I hear this complaint again and again: They agonize about having to stay quiet not only about their donors’ membership in a class that has benefited from an age of inequality but also about specific conduct by many donors that often worsens the problems the donors and nonprofits are working to solve.

As a moral matter, I have always agreed with the premise that dirty money is dirty money, and the idea that you can wash dirty money clean by repurposing it for arts and culture is a matter of masking greed through collective self-deception.

Story continues below.

But, at the same time, I would argue that there’s a reason that arts and culture can indulge in this necessary decision-making right now, and could and would not have done so, say, in 2010 or 2011 or 2012. America is flush, or at least America feels flush, or at least the one-percent American donor class feels really flush, and while the philanthropic ravine between rich-arts and poor-arts is largely where it was 10 or more years ago, the fact is that the Met won’t fall on some existential sword by spurning the Sacklers; no galleries will close and nobody will be laid off. Certainly the Met must feel highly confident that other monies will be found, or already exist in the pipeline, to make up for any monies that the Sacklers might have pledged. They can afford to do the right thing.

What remains to be seen, however, is whether cultural institutions will do the right thing when times aren’t so flush. When times are dire, will ethics still trump existence?

I humbly and most dispiritedly suggest to you that they will not. When the economy one day turns — and it will, yes, one day turn — I can just as easily imagine organizations like the Met or the Sackler-spurning Guggenheim very carefully and very cautiously devising a communications strategy aimed at neutralizing blow-back for taking dirty money from the Sacklers of tomorrow.

Nonprofit fundraisers loathe this kind of conversation, and who can blame them? Another part of this conversation that they loathe, and understandably so, is that depending on how strident your politics are, particularly on the left, there is a cogent argument to be made that all massive personal wealth invariably results from something unsavory or unpleasant or unethical, and so cherry-picking — this dirty money is OK, that dirty money is not — is nothing more than poses and sophistry. Real estate developers who vacuum up parcels of land, kick out residents and gentrify, gentrify, gentrify. Hedge fund owners who pay less in taxes than you do. Market speculators who lay waste to the cyclical economy and eagerly perpetuate wealth inequality. Fossil fuel barons whose product, in a century or two, laid waste to the planet. Big Pharma — well, enough said.

Story continues below.

What if, one day down the road, some cultural institution confronts Sophie’s philanthropic choice — to accept dirty money and exist or reject dirty money and die? You may think this is an absurd and unlikely and extreme scenario, but history teaches us otherwise. In such a situation, will cultural institutions always place ethics over existence?

None of which is an argument for accepting money from members of the Sackler family — although arts and culture, as The Clyde Fitch Report pointed out a few weeks ago, should continue to remember that museums weren’t always so publicly woke. Indeed, they knew all along that Sackler money was very, very dirty, and they only became averse to the dirt when the cause of preventing more opioid deaths, and searching for individuals to blame for hundreds of thousands of opioid deaths, achieved a critical social mass.

Story continues below.

Yes, I can hear what some of you may be saying: At a well-managed cultural organization, it should never come down to a binary choice between life and death. This may be so, but if you dial back your calendars to the Great Recession, you can find any number of cultural groups that were confronted with their own mortality. When I was teaching graduate school in the M.A. in Arts Administration program at Baruch College, City University of New York, I had a guest speaker once who, after talking about how she had successfully raised millions of dollars for the arts during her career, was asked by one of my students whether there could ever be a circumstance in which she would accept a major donation from the Grand Wizard of the KKK or Donald Trump. (That the specter of those two individuals appeared side-by-side in the question clearly spoke for itself.) My student has posited an extreme and incredibly unlikely example, but she wanted to elicit where my guest speaker would draw the line — if, indeed, she had a line to draw. My guest speaker’s answer was painfully honest: each and every development director and executive director has to make those decisions for themselves, based on their moral compasses and the fiscal imperatives of the moment. Needless to say, it was not the most satisfying answer for my student, but it was the truth. The Met’s decision today may not be the Guggenheim’s decision tomorrow. It’s easier to say no when times are good, and harder to say no when paying your staff or just having your doors open are the stakes.

Funny, tragic and anguishing things can happen when economies go into a tailspin, when otherwise generous trustees and patrons and funders suddenly look at their stock market portfolios and realize that zeroes have stripped from their bottom lines. Desperation isn’t unusual; recessions can turn otherwise ethical arts leaders into unapologetic pragmatists. And it can happen as fast as you can say “But we didn’t know…”