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Arts & Culture

What It Means For Art When A Museum Rejects Money From The Sackler Family

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Why would some of the world's great museums turn down a lot of money from a family that famously supports the arts? This week, Britain's National Portrait Gallery and the Tate Museums declined to accept donations from a charitable arm of the Sackler family. Members of the Sackler family own Purdue Pharma. They manufacture Oxycontin, and they've been accused of promoting and growing rich from opioid abuse. We're joined now from New York by Roberta Smith, art critic of The New York Times.

Thanks so much for being with us.

ROBERTA SMITH: Certainly.

SIMON: Apparently, Nan Goldin, the photographer who once had a problem with painkillers - she threatened to withdraw from a planned retrospective of her work if the National Gallery took the Sackler money. Did that sharpen their minds?

SMITH: I'm sure it did, but I think there have been a few protests. Like, the Modern has been protested for Larry Fink being on their board of trustees. And he is a man who's very much invested in for-profit prisons.

SIMON: And what are some of the implications of that as you see it?

SMITH: I tend to have a kind of both sides view. I understand that institutions take money from lots of different people. I understand that huge fortunes are very rarely without some exploitive component. Even the ones that look kind of great and innocent right now, if you follow them back enough in history, you'll probably find exploitation. And so I think that museums can become more conscious of this.

SIMON: Well, what was the other side, though, as you said you also see the other side?

SMITH: Well, the other side is that this is the way museums survive and that rich people do, in fact, assuage their guilt by kind of giving back, noblesse oblige. And the idea that museums are going to radically change, I don't think that's going to happen. I think they're going to stand firm up to a point and maybe look more carefully at whose money they're taking.

SIMON: Can I also get you to talk about artists themselves? I don't think anyone would say that Pablo Picasso was necessarily a role model in his personal life. Paul Gauguin used young teenage girls in Tahiti in all ways for his art. We could go on.

SMITH: Yeah, it's a fairly long list. I don't think that's a reason to stop looking at or appreciating their work. I do think it's a reason to contextualize it a bit more and sort of make - you know, so that these men aren't such heroes. But you can't get rid of their work. You can't write their work out of history, and you can't deprive future generations of it. You just have to maybe change what they know about it or expand what they know about it.

SIMON: Is there a work of art that moves you when you look at it but repelled you when you think of the artist?

SMITH: Well, some of Picasso's works are probably like that. Some of the late works where he does these kind of amazing, rather squishy paintings of women. You know, I guess, if I stand back and think about what some of his depictions of the body tell us, I could say, well, this is a horrible, dirty, old man, or this is a person being extremely explicit about his own desire, which is a form of vulnerability.

SIMON: And what about - do art goers have some moral responsibility, too, to not patronize certain museums or certain theaters, listen to Michael Jackson?

SMITH: I think that's everybody's private business, you know? And people shouldn't be policing it. People should look at and read and experience what they want to. That's an aspect of democracy, what is available to them. They can choose from that on their own, but I don't think anything should be off the table.

SIMON: Roberta Smith the New York Times art critic, thanks so much for being with us.

SMITH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.