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How the Met is handling dilemma of donor accountability

Pressure is increasingly being applied to institutions benefiting from philanthropy to be accountable for their funding sources. Lately, the opioid epidemic has highlighted that dilemma: New York's famed Metropolitan Museum of Art is the latest museum to turn down money from a family linked with the manufacturing of OxyContin. Jeffrey Brown talks to the Met's president and CEO, Daniel Weiss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    These days, there is a growing call for new accountability for past behavior, and the pressure is increasingly being applied to institutions benefiting from philanthropy.

    The money behind major gifts is often at issue. And the opioids epidemic has put that front and center for museums, hospitals, and universities.

    As Jeffrey Brown tells us, the Metropolitan Museum of Art yesterday became the latest museum to turn down some money from a family linked with the manufacture of OxyContin.

    Our story is part of our regular series on arts and culture, Canvas.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    One of the Met's premier attractions, the Temple of Dendur, lies in the museum's glass-enclosed Sackler wing, named for and largely funded by the family behind Purdue Pharma, the company that's been criticized and sued for its role in the opioid crisis.

    Protesters have targeted the museum, demanding it cut financial ties with the family and remove the Sackler name. Other museums, including the Guggenheim, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Tate in London, have also come under fire for taking Sackler money, and have said they won't accept future donations.

    Daniel Weiss is president and CEO of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He joins us from New York.

    Thank you very much for joining us, Mr. Weiss.

    I know the museum has been reviewing this for months. Why in the end are you taking this action, and how much did public pressure play a role?

  • Daniel Weiss:

    Well, at the Met, we recognize that philanthropy and the support of donors is a very important part of how we have come to being.

    Every part of the museum was really built through fund-raising one way or the other and gifts. So, we take this seriously. But, over the last year or so, as we have followed the opioid crisis and we have gotten a better understanding of what actually is happening, and as the facts have become more clear, we felt this was the right time for us to take action.

    So we gathered our community together and we did some thinking. And, yes, the outside community always makes a difference. We listen to the public. We care about what they think. And we tried to develop a solution that we felt was right for the institution.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The Sackler family, as you say in your statement, as a whole, has given millions over several generations. This action targets just some members of the family with limited donations.

    Should it be seen, this action, as more symbolic?

  • Daniel Weiss:

    Well, I think, ultimately, the action is a substantive one around aligning our decision towards the people who are most involved in the opioid crisis.

    Some of the Sacklers are not directly involved in the opioid crisis, and many of the gifts the Met has received over the course of more than 50 years predate OxyContin. They predate Purdue Pharma. So those gifts have really nothing to do with this issue.

    We tried to distinguish, then, between those who are involved in this particular crisis and those who weren't. And, in that sense, I suppose you could say it's a symbolic action, but we think of it really as a substantive decision around who is most involved in this issue.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And you have decided not to take down the signs, not to remove the Sackler name, as activists and protesters have called for. Why is that? The name will be there very prominently on the museum.

  • Daniel Weiss:

    Two reasons for that.

    First of all, many of those names were put up on the walls of the museum long before this crisis came to the fore, long before OxyContin was created. So, those gifts have nothing to do with OxyContin. And, therefore, just because the name Sackler is in a particular space, it doesn't mean that those who are associated with that gift have any guilt or responsibility. So that's one reason.

    And the second reason is, this is an ongoing investigation. There is something like several hundred different lawsuits under way in this country around the OxyContin and opioid crisis generally. So, the fact base isn't known to us at this point.

    If it turns out that there is more information that is definitive in how we understand the way our donors have behaved, it is not out of the question we would review that decision and make a different one.

    But, at this point we don't have that information. We don't feel that would be responsible.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    This issue, as you know, has just grown and grown, and the Sackler family is just part of it.

    The question remains, where do you and other institutions draw the lines on what kind of donor behavior is acceptable, and who will determine that?

  • Daniel Weiss:

    Well, ultimately, it's the responsibility of the trustees and the senior administration to make those decisions about whose gifts we should accept and under what circumstances we would say no.

    Our general guidelines are that we are a philanthropic institution. And we have been built that way. We do not subject our donors to some litmus test around their political point of view or any kind of partisan agenda.

    We really — we almost align philanthropy to freedom of expression. People have the right the support us in various — for reasons and wherever they're coming from.

    We do draw the line, however, when we believe that their — that gifts might impede our fundamental mission, they might have a relationship to the core functioning of the institution and our identity. And, in that case, we might decide not to accept a gift.

    But that threshold is higher than just a litmus test around the personality or likability of a particular donor.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Let me just ask you, very briefly, though, are you now looking at all of your donors and benefactors to see where the money came from, or is this a one-off response in a particular case?

  • Daniel Weiss:

    Well, we actually do it all the time anyway.

    The museum is very careful about when we accept gifts. We know who is giving us the gifts. We have a sense of who they are and where they come from. We have some sense of where the money comes from.

    We don't engage in a deep forensic investigation about that, but we do have a sense of all of that. And so we exercise that discrimination and judgment along the way.

    We have not decided to review all of the gifts we have ever received to make sure that the people who are giving them to us meet some standard. But we are mindful of that. We have always been mindful of that. In this case, because the fact base is evolving around the opioid crisis, we felt it was necessary to review those decisions and exercise our right not to accept gifts.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Daniel Weiss is president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

    Thank you very much.

  • Daniel Weiss:

    My pleasure. Thank you.

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