The morality of arts funding

I was one of the contributors last night to a discussion – called a think-in – held at the new media company, Tortoise, on the morality of arts funding and, specifically, the issues surrounding the nearly universal decision on the part of museums and galleries to turn down any offer of funding from the Sacklers, owing to the involvement of their family company, Purdue Pharma, in the development and aggressive marketing of OxyContin, an opioid drug which is highly addictive if taken over long periods of time.

Most of the discussion was not so much about issues surrounding the Sacklers, but more generally as to what sources can be regarded as legitimate if we are moving into a different climate of opinion in which there is public opposition to arts funding coming from any company or any individual who has in any way been associated with unethical behaviour: tobacco, arms trading, fossil fuels and, now, companies whose owners are thought to hold unacceptable political views.

The morality of this is easy to understand, but will pose grave problems for arts institutions which, as a result of government policy, have become increasingly dependent on the philanthropy of private donors, who are not necessarily going to remain generous if their morality, motives and family history are going to be subjected to fierce public scrutiny.

One person in the audience said that conservation charities were happy to accept money from what he described as ‘penitent butchers’. But I’m not sure that Pierpont Morgan or Henry E. Huntington were especially penitent when they created great institutions of public benefit.


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