A new red line? Controversial gifts in the spotlight

Posted on: March 22, 2019 by

Last night, news broke that the Tate’s board of trustees have decided not to seek or accept further donations from the Sackler family. This comes hot on the heels of reports in the BBC and other outlets this week that the Sackler Trust has withdrawn a £1M ($1.3M) potential donation to the National Portrait Gallery. It is reported that the Sackler Trust, the family which owns Purdue Pharma, said that the donation might “deflect” the gallery from its work.

Campaign group Culture Unstained have welcomed the announcement, calling it a “powerful acknowledgment” that some sources of funding cross a “red line”.

According to reports, Purdue Pharma is facing lawsuits in the US, in which a number of members of the Sackler family are named, which allege that it sold prescription painkiller OxyContin as a drug with a low chance of causing addictions, despite knowing that this was not true. It is important to emphasize that the Sackler Trust has vigorously denied these allegations.

It is thought that the Sackler Trust offered the donation in 2016 towards the gallery’s costs of renovation. Reports claim that Nan Goldin, the photographer and anti-opioid activist, had raised the question during discussions and had advised the gallery not to take the money, though it is thought that the gallery had been mulling its decision before her intervention. In a joint statement, the Sackler Trust and the National Portrait Gallery said that they had “jointly agreed” not to proceed with the donation at this time.

A spokesman for the Sackler family explained: “The giving philosophy of the family has always been to actively support institutions while never getting in the way of their mission. It has become evident that recent reporting of allegations made against Sackler family members may cause this new donation to deflect the National Portrait Gallery from its important work.”

The Sackler family’s contribution to our cultural heritage is substantial on any measure. According to figures published in Forbes magazine, the family was worth about £10bn ($13bn) in 2016 and, as readers will know, the Sackler family are prolific philanthropists and many cultural institutions including the V&A museum and the National Gallery have enjoyed the benefit of their largesse.

Indeed, reports in the NY Times claim that several Scottish politicians have called on the V&A to return a £500,000 grant given by the Sackler Trust to its museum in Dundee.

It follows inevitably that these decisions will cause some unease in the sector (who knows, there may be more such decisions in coming days). There are few charities and foundations that can easily afford to lose £1M.

Although the decision of the National Portrait Gallery is not actually a case of a refusal (since the offer was withdrawn before any decision was taken on refusal) these announcements beg the question when can charities and foundations refuse gifts. What factors may (or must) trustees and governors take into consideration? Can the arts and heritage sector even put in place such red lines?

Charities can refuse gifts on what is often called a “quasi-commercial” basis, including where it would be in the enlightened self-interest of the charity (assuming that the charity’s governing document does not prevent such a step). It is thought that this ground might allow refusal where acceptance of the gift might bring the charity trustees or the charity into disrepute, although there is little legal authority directly on the point. There have certainly been cases involving high-profile charities such as the RSPCA which have suggested that trustees can have regard to the public image and reputation of the charity when they discharge their duties.

It does seem to be the season for red lines at the moment, though thankfully this story had nothing to do with Brexit. Rather than spoil all the fun all at once, I’ll draw a (red) line under the point for now but will try to unpack some of the issues in more depth in a forthcoming issue of Art, Antiquity and Law.