Preeminent American photographer Nan Goldin, along with hundreds of activists and supporters, staged a “die-in” at New York City’s Guggenheim Museum this weekend to press the institution to cut ties to opioid profiteers. The museum has received significant funding from the Sackler family who own the pharmaceutical company that developed OxyContin. Goldin and the other protestors called for an avowal of the Sacklers, whose names appear on the walls of many museums in the city as well as in London.
The protesters filled the winding, multi-story perimeter of the museum, armed with papers that resembled prescription slips that they released on cue to create a “blizzard”-like effect. The dramatic gesture referred to a statement by Richard Sackler that the development of OxyContin would be “followed by a blizzard of prescriptions that will bury the competition.” The prescription slips were stamped in bold red lettering with demands and data: TAKE DOWN THEIR NAME, SHAME ON SACKLER, 200 DEAD EACH DAY.
To conclude the demonstration, the protestors laid on the floor as if dead, surrounded by the prescriptions and hundreds of empty pill bottles. A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that of the 70,000 fatal drug overdoses in 2017, nearly 50,000 of the deaths were attributable to opioids like OxyContin. Following the die-in, the activists took their demonstration to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where they have previously staged protests against opioid profiteers.
PAIN, Nan Goldin’s Personal Campaign
Photographer Nan Goldin is known for her gritty photography of friends living on the fringes of downtown New York City in the ‘80s, immersed in the LGBTQ community, partying with artists and junkies.
Goldin, herself, was addicted to street drugs at the time, which she notes should have precluded her from getting a prescription to addictive painkillers. “The brain remembers,” she told The Guardian last year in an interview when discussing her OxyContin addiction. Having survived a fentanyl overdose, she shared that overcoming her addiction to prescription opioids is for her own survival as much as it is for the survival of other addicts. “I’m staying clean for my doctor, for myself, for activism and the sake of other addicts. I feel that in my soul, it would be devastating if I relapsed.”
The high-profile protests at places like the Guggenheim and the Met have been organized through Prescription Addiction Intervention Now, or PAIN, Goldin’s campaign to hold the Sackler family accountable for profiting off a drug that has led to a deadly epidemic; Purdue Pharma has intentionally misled public health officials by claiming their drug was safer and less addictive than other painkillers on the market, a fraudulent claim that got the company slapped with a felony in 2007.
PAIN’s mission is not only to call upon cultural institutions to divest themselves of the Sackler family but also to demand that the Sacklers invest their profits not in museums but rather in a massive effort to re-educate the public and health officials on the deadly realities of opioid use disorder, characterize the risks and benefits of the drugs honestly, support addiction treatment facilities, and provide infrastructure to save the lives of people who are overdosing.