A renowned New York photographer who recovered from a three-year OxyContin addiction is using her art world cachet to wage a public crusade against drug manufacturer Purdue Pharma, and that company’s longtime owners, who are also major art patrons. They are the descendants of Mortimer and Raymond Sackler, two of three physician brothers who built the company.
Nan Goldin has founded an advocacy group calling for the Sackler Family, “who built their empire with the lives of hundreds of thousands” of addicts, to use some of their family fortune to finance addiction treatment and education.
Foundations run by those members of the Sackler family have donated millions of dollars to institutions like the Victoria and Albert Museum, the American Museum of Natural History, the Solomon Guggenheim Foundation and the Dia Arts Foundation.
Goldin, whose photos have been displayed in a number of museums and galleries in New York and elsewhere, was prescribed OxyContin in 2014 to treat wrist pain and quickly became addicted. As her need for opiates increased, she eventually began using heroin, once nearly dying from an overdose of heroin and the synthetic opioid fentanyl. She finally got sober just over a year ago.
She recounted her addiction nightmare in an interview with The New York Times. “Your own skin revolts against you,” she told the Times. “Every part of yourself is in terrible pain.”
The January issue of Artforum published starkly graphic self-portraits by Goldin, and an essay documenting her life as a drug addict. “I went from three pills a day, as prescribed, to 18. I got a private endowment and spent it all. Like all opiate addicts, my crippling fear of withdrawal was my guiding force,” she wrote.
Elizabeth A. Sackler, the founder of a center for feminist art at the Brooklyn Museum, responded to Goldin’s essay with a statement recalling that her father, Arthur M. Sackler, who had owned Purdue Pharma with his brothers, Mortimer and Raymond, died in 1987, before OxyContin was developed. (It was approved for use in 1995.) Therefore, none of his descendants have received any of the proceeds from OxyContin sales.
“The opioid epidemic is a national crisis and Purdue Pharma’s role in it is morally abhorrent to me,” Elizabeth Sackler wrote. “I admire Nan Goldin’s commitment to take action and her courage to tell her story.”
In a statement to the Times, Robert Josephson, a Purdue Pharma spokesman said, “We are deeply troubled by the prescription and illicit opioid abuse crisis, and we would welcome an opportunity to sit down with Ms. Goldin to discuss her ideas.”
When Goldin began researching the history of OxyContin, she found out that that Purdue’s parent company had pleaded guilty in 2007 to a federal felony charge of misbranding the drug. Since then, a new federal investigation has begun and lawsuits have accused Purdue of unethical marketing practices. The company has denied those allegations.
Ms. Goldin’s new group, Prescription Addiction Intervention Now, or P.A.I.N., has called for museums to reject future donations from the Sackler family. It has posted a petition on the website change.org., demanding that the Sackler family and Purdue Pharma finance rehabilitation centers, relapse prevention and holistic approaches; advertise the dangers of opioids; and re-educate doctors to prevent over-prescribing.
Josephson said that for more than 15 years Purdue Pharma has supported many of the measures P.A.I.N is calling for. He said it funded state prescription drug monitoring programs and distributed federal guidelines for prescribing opioids. Also, Perdue recently announced new educational initiatives aimed at teenagers, warning of opioid dangers.
Goldin said the group, which meets weekly, is considering other actions, including direct protests and making a documentary on OxyContin. “We intend to hold the Sacklers accountable, and put social and political pressure on them to respond meaningfully to this crisis,” she said in the P.A.I.N. mission statement.