Hannah Jane Parkinson
Tue, 28 February 2023 at 6:00 am GMT
In Laura Poitras’s Oscar-nominated documentary, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, we watch as members of the Sackler family – then-owners of the pharmaceutical behemoth behind America’s opioid crisis – are confronted with the testimony of those affected. They sit impassively as a recording is played of a desperate mother’s 911 call after finding her son dead from overdose. Another piece of testimony is from Nan Goldin, the photographer and former OxyContin addict whose successful campaign for the art world to renounce Sackler patronage the film follows.
Thanks to Goldin and the activist group she leads, the Sackler name has fallen away from many of the arts institutions that named spaces after the family in exchange for its largesse. First the National Portrait Gallery in the UK rejected a £1m donation. Then the Louvre in Paris removed the name. Then the National Gallery, the British Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim, the Serpentine, V&A, the Tate, and the Roundhouse all followed suit.
Would they have turned away from the Sacklers without this campaign led by a leading light of the art world? Without the $8bn settlement that Purdue Pharma paid the Department of Justice (inclusive of a $3.5bn criminal fine, plus a $6bn civil settlement two years later)? What about if the company hadn’t become the subject of films with titles such as The Crime of the Century? Forgive me if I’m sceptical.
One of the cultural institutions that also took the Sackler dime is the Courtauld. Consisting of galleries located in London’s glorious Somerset House, as well as being part of the University of London and a research centre, the Courtauld owns some of the world’s greatest artworks and most significant manuscripts. Last year, it put on a spectacular Van Gogh exhibition in a brand new space: the Denise Coates Exhibition Galleries.
You’d be forgiven for not recognising the name, because this billionaire is particularly publicity-avoidant. Along with her family, Denise Coates (CBE) owns one of the most profitable gambling firms in the world, Bet365. Last year, when NHS England found that 2.2 million people in the UK are either current problem gamblers or at risk of addiction, Coates took home more than £250m. And in 2021, the year a Public Health England report cited 409 gambling-related suicides, Coates earned £421m. Fitting, I suppose, that the first major exhibition in the gallery bearing Coates’s name featured Vincent van Gogh, an artist who spent time in psychiatric hospitals for chronic addiction and who took his own life.
Coates, on the opening of the gallery, said that she had “found great fulfilment from my own exposure to visual arts and I am pleased to be able to support that journey for others”. I too have found great fulfilment from being exposed to the visual arts. Unfortunately, when I visit the Courtauld I will now also be exposed to the name of a woman whose company contributed to a gambling addiction which led me to mental-health crisis and the loss of tens of thousands of pounds. Unfortunately, I can no longer find as much fulfilment in the visual arts, as I have had to give up memberships to much-loved galleries as a direct result of those losses. Unfortunately, for two years, the arts didn’t even cross my mind because I was entirely consumed by gambling, and lost the ability to find pleasure in anything else. I am essentially now starting from scratch.
Of course, there’s a moral dilemma here; the thorny question of when quid pro quo is actually worth it. Plenty of cultural, academic and sporting institutions rely on the patronage of wealthy individuals and corporations. If I am an art lover then shouldn’t I be grateful to the Coateses and the Sacklers for facilitating access to it? Does it matter that what is happening here is artwashing, sibling to the much more closely scrutinised greenwashing and sportswashing, most recently spotlighted by the World Cup in Qatar and the snapping up of Premier League clubs by human rights abusing regimes?
And where should the line be drawn? Even casual gallery-goers will recognise the signage of Credit Suisse – the Swiss bank that has clients involved in human-trafficking, murder and political corruption – in the National Gallery, of which it is a long-term sponsor. Leading galleries are under pressure to divest from the energy industry. And how do we feel about the fact that oligarch (Sir) Len Blavatnik, who is accused of links with associates of Vladimir Putin (which he strenuously denies), has donated to almost every leading cultural and academic institution you can think of?
Of course, the crux of the matter is that our cultural institutions should not have to rely upon the generosity, whether altruistic or self-serving, of the 1%. The galleries and museums and theatres and music venues which remind us of everything that life has to offer, that boost mood and educate and elevate the soul, should be deemed important enough, imperative even, to be funded properly by the state. The National Gallery is a public body under the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, as are 14 other gallery and museum groups. If funding was allocated as it should be, then the Tate, which is one of them, wouldn’t also feel compelled to accept £1m from Denise Coates.
The actor Maxine Peake has led calls to save the Oldham Coliseum, a 135-year-old theatre which lost its entire Arts Council England (ACE) funding. Donmar Warehouse – one of the theatres that has terminated its funding agreement with the Sacklers – has also had its entire ACE grant removed. If wealthy individuals and corporations were taxed at higher rates, there would be more money in the public purse to support the arts – instead of those wealthy individuals and corporations offering to fund them directly as a form of reputation laundering. The arts aren’t just about personal and social benefits; the cultural sectors contributed £10.8bn annually to the UK economy before the pandemic hit. There is also evidence that access to culture saves the NHS money in its positive effects on physical and mental health.
It could be said (and I’d have sympathy with the view) that refusing money just because a donor’s politics don’t align with the liberal worldview of most cultural bodies shows a level of moral superiority that is at best self-defeating. But taking cash from those profiting via active harm to vulnerable people is, surely, very different. The Sacklers fall into this category. So, despite its charity donations and positive support for local enterprises, does the Coates family. The gambling industry makes 60% of its money from 5% of its customers, and those 5% are not the ones taking a flutter on the horses every now and then.
As I write, the Denise Coates Exhibition Gallery is hosting a Peter Doig exhibition. I was introduced to Doig’s work as a child, after an art prize in my home city of Liverpool kickstarted his career. I want to see this exhibition. I don’t want to see Denise Coates’s name next to it, even if it’s partly thanks to her that the show is happening. Because it’s also partly down to her that millions of people, including me, are rebuilding their lives from a business model centred around our misery. It’s an art-form for sure, but not the good kind.
- Hannah Jane Parkinson is a Guardian columnist and the author of The Joy of Small Things