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Nan Goldin Sackler PAIN
via @nangoldinstudio

Art-activists on the importance of fighting complicity in the art world

As Nan Goldin’s activist group has a major victory, we ask a handful of art-activists about the importance of speaking out

If you’ve been into a museum or major gallery in recent years, you’ve probably seen the Sackler family’s name but probably knew nothing about them. Its money has paid for big extensions, refurbishments, even escalators. But within this generosity, has been a hidden cost. The Sacklers made their money from Purdue Pharma and critics argue that the family’s aggressive business strategies helped to fuel the opioid crisis in the US – claiming 150 lives in America each day.

In recent days, spokespeople for the National Gallery and Tate have each publicly announced that they will reject large donations – some of which are in excess of £1 million pounds – despite years of government cuts to culture funding, and the looming threat that Brexit poses to their budgets. While the Sacklers have been making money from pharmaceuticals for years, things are heating up for them with a lawsuit from Massachusetts and Connecticut state revealing incriminating documents which expose the family's strong ties to the business’ alleged attempts to mislead medical professionals.

Artists and activists have been campaigning on this issue for over a decade – none more notable than revered photographer Nan Goldin. She’s been speaking out about the issue for years, founding the group PAIN (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) in 2017 to call-out the close links between institutions and the Sackler family. The ground has held protests in the middle of galleries to raise awareness, and it’s not ending there. Goldin has recently announced she’s planning further “guerrilla action” against a major arts organisation in London – but we still don’t know where.

Goldin’s political work is grounded in personal experience. In 2014, she became addicted to OxyContin – the drug which has enriched the Sacklers – and since recovering two years ago, is fighting not just for the donations to be turned down but for the family name to be removed from the walls of cultural institutions. She told the FT, “Museums are afraid to be showing me right now because they’re worried about what actions we’re going to take.”

“The Sackler scandal reminds us that it isn’t enough to make art about identity, culture, and society. Instead, we have a responsibility for who we work with and why”

Recently, I’ve been speaking to artists about the distinction between making art about politics, and being a political artist. The Sackler scandal reminds us that it isn’t enough to make art about identity, culture, and society. Instead, we have a responsibility for who we work with and why. While the institutions may have turned a blind eye until they couldn’t any longer, this outcome is huge, and it’s the result of people speaking out against injustice.

Other frontiers to the debate about ethics in cultural funding remain. The Art Not Oil coalition is a broad movement of groups fighting to end the role fossil fuels play in supporting the arts. Chris Garrard, co-director of Culture Unstained which is part of the Art Not Oil coalition, says that “just two years after BP's sponsorship of Tate was ended by a headline-grabbing campaign of art activism, the international movement for ‘Fossil Free Culture’ has grown rapidly.” Other notable moments in this fight include a collective of Dutch artists who fought against and ended Shell’s sponsorship of the Van Gogh Museum, French campaigners who performed inside the Total sponsored Louvre, and the activist theatre group BP or not BP? who held, what Garrard describes as, the “largest ever protest in the British Museum's 260-year history over the issue of BP sponsorship”.

These individual fights are building serious momentum. After the high profile rejections of money for the Sackler family, they’re suspending any new donations in the UK. Every new blow was too much of a PR disaster to continue. Garrard explains that “many sector-wide bodies already lay out the standards that cultural institutions should follow when scrutinising sponsors and donors – but too often those standards aren’t being put into practice”. The pressure that the National Gallery, Tate, and others have put on the Sackler family demonstrates that no longer will they claim to be “neutral” and thankfully “are prepared to show leadership on the issues shaping wider society”.

While those at the top have a special responsibility, due to the power and trust they have, as well as the serious impact they can have on the world, there are ethical questions which remain for all of us too. Should you show with a certain gallery, or attend exhibitions funded by those you disagree with? Gerrard advises, “For individual artists – much like established arts organisations – it is worth recording your ethical red lines in some form. So that when tricky questions do arise, you’re prepared to respond in a clear and consistent way.”

Holding these ethical lines can often come with a cost and some level of personal sacrifice. When speaking with The White Pube, the artistic collaboration between Gabrielle de la Puente and Zarina Muhammad, it’s clear they’ve been careful with who and how they work. They are keenly aware of how easy it is for independent voices to get hoovered up by a status quo hungry for cultural capital. “I realise more and more each month how much I value being self-employed and working in alternative, independent ways in the arts,” de la Puente told me. “If something is bad, I can't and won't keep my mouth shut. And more importantly, I don't have to.”

Born out of a frustration with the art establishment, de la Puente and Muhammad have been growing their own audiences through weekly writing, a website residency, and archive, while also developing relationships with museums, galleries, and charities such as MIMA, the ICA, and Shape. Yet, despite institutional validation, they’ve remained committed to their values. “No one is going to fire me, I am my own boss,” de la Puente notes. Independence comes with its own risks and sacrifices, with critics of their activism suggesting they won’t be able to get jobs for rocking the boat. Unphased, de la Puente responds, “I'll stay in my childhood bedroom if that's what it takes thank u very much.”

Balancing the politics you care about with everything else can take some time to adjust to. “When I first studied at Goldsmiths, I had an issue separating my art and my activism,” Liam Geary Baulch reveals, an artist and activist with Extinction Rebellion. Inspired by the climate catastrophe which is killing life today and threatens all of us tomorrow, Extinction Rebellion was founded as a group of activists embracing classic nonviolent, civil disobedience. Members have rallied for a better world by writing open letters, blocking roads, and occupying buildings including the Scottish Parliament. “But in a workshop that I did at the Hayward about participatory practices,” Baulch continues, “I was told being an artist is just an excuse to do what you want. So I feel quite happy to still call myself an artist even though I have no time to work in my studio at the moment.

“(A few months ago) the head of the UN came out and said we have two years to solve this crisis,” Baulch says. He’s been working on climate change for years now, mostly through art making, and now more directly through his activist work. Climate change and other important issues, as well as being careful about activist burnout, are all subjects of his art and activism.

The stakes to all this are serious. This mass movement taking nonviolent civil disobedience against government inaction poses risks to those involved, with many being arrested at their creative direction action events. But for Baulch as a “white man with British citizenship, I have the privilege to protest”. In contrast to the injustices that others face, he knows, “that if I am arrested, or put in prison, I will most likely not be treated as badly as those communities in the UK who are repeatedly oppressed by the police and legal system. So in relation to that privilege, I think breaking the law is the only moral thing to do”.

There’s an important distinction to be made between art about politics, and being involved in the artworld in a political way. It’s not just about taking responsibility for what you’re saying, but how you’re saying it, and who you’re saying it to. Every artist has to navigate their own path through the messy world of creativity and commerce, finding the supports to be able to get their message out there without it being dead on arrival.