London is famous for its world-class museums. Yet how these institutions are funded continues to be a matter of controversy. The Fence investigates the relationship between fine art and fortune.

When does someone’s money become unacceptable? It seems that might be the case for one particular family. You might know a bit about the Sacklers. They’re the American family who set up Purdue Pharma, the vertically integrated private company. Through their ‘wonder’ drug OxyContin, they’ve accumulated a family fortune of $13 billion. The Lancet reports that 72,000 Americans died in 2019 through the opioid crisis, a tragedy that many have accused Purdue Pharma of starting. (In a recent statement, the Sackler family members said that those ‘who served on Purdue’s board of directors acted ethically and lawfully, and the upcoming release of company documents will prove that fact in detail. This history of Purdue will also demonstrate that all financial distributions were proper.’)
That is all well and good and legal and American, but over here, the Sacklers have been spreading their wings. They are entrenched in Britain, having donated millions to cultural institutions on these shores, to the National Gallery and beyond, spreading their largesse to seemingly every museum in the country. So much so that in 2011, when Dame Theresa Sackler was awarded the Prince of Wales medal for philanthropy, the director of the Dulwich Picture Gallery, Ian Dejardin, commented, ‘It’s going to be difficult not to make her sound utterly saintly’.
The US Department of Justice, however, takes a different view to Dejardin. In late October, it resolved its civil and criminal investigations into how Purdue marketed their drugs by reaching an $8 billion settlement. Under the terms of the settlement, members of the Sackler family and Purdue executives are not cleared of future potential liability.
The Sacklers’ stock is falling fast. Institutions like the Tate galleries have been distancing themselves at rapid speed. But what about everyone else? We dug deep through the patrons list and spoke to a number of individuals to try and get a clearer idea of who is funding London’s museums.

National Gallery

Their names are all up in lights at the top of Trafalgar Square: Botticelli, Stubbs, Rembrandt and Ahmanson. Ahmanson? Something of the new school. Howard Ahmanson Junior is the evangelical Californian tycoon who sponsors the Ahmanson Curator in Art and Religion at the UK’s leading cultural institution. He is also the man who helped fund the infamous Proposition 8 referendum some twelve years back. Not so keen on gay rights, in short.
There’s more at the NG too, what with their decade-long platform with Credit Suisse, who have been the museum’s star corporate backer since 2008. More recently, Credit Suisse Group AG won a bid to stall the release of a potentially damning report into how they failed to prevent money laundering within the company. (Credit Suisse have consistently denied that senior management had knowledge of the money laundering, claiming that it was the work of a lone wolf.)

British Museum

You would have thought that being a punchline in Black Panther would have encouraged the Bloomsbury icon to tighten up ship. But then you’re dealing with a museum that holds the Elgin Marbles, the Benin Bronzes and the Hoa Hakananai’a, despite an extensive series of pleas that they be returned to their countries of origin.
The British Museum (BM) has maintained its relationship with British Petroleum (BP) despite extended protests, despite national coverage and despite the Royal Shakespeare Company cutting ties with the oil-extraction company. But dipping into its list of patrons and supporters reveals more names that are linked with controversy.
At the top of the list: the BM are the last institution in London still to take money from Big Tobacco. JTI – Japan Tobacco International – provides funding to the museum’s Asia department. Their acquisition fund has helped purchase over 600 objects for the collection, (including some wonderful pieces from the Meiji Restoration).
Moving on, we are joined by our friends the Ahmansons again, as well as Sir Len Blavatnik (of whom more later). But two more corporate entities caught our eye.

The first is Holdingham Group, the aptly named holding company for Hakluyt, a Mayfair-based strategic advisory firm. Haykluyt is known as some thing of a retirement home for ex-MI6 officers looking to coin it in, having spent diligent careers working for Her Majesty’s intelligence services. It was founded by Christopher James, who was in charge of SIS liaising with British companies. The Sunday Times reported that Hakluyt employees were employed to infiltrate environmental groups on behalf of Royal Dutch Shell, who claimed that they were looking to protect their employees from being attacked. (Hakluyt director Michael Mackay commented, ‘We don’t ever talk about what we do. We never go into any details of what we may or may not be doing.’)

The second is Saudi Aramco, the operator of the world’s largest hydrocarbon network. They were responsible for 4.5% of greenhouse emissions from 1988 to 2015, globally. They’re owned by the government of Saudi Arabia, whose de-facto leader is Mohammed ‘bone-saw’ Bin-Salman. (If you haven’t been following the news: ‘MBS’ categorically denies any involvement in the murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi.)

National Portrait Gallery

Everyone loves the NPG. It’s a quirky and approachable way to drink in our island story. In 2018 they partnered with Hugo Boss to launch Michael Jackson: On the Wall which is a very punny way to describe the many artistic responses to an alleged paedophile. Hugo Boss, of course, made its fortunes in the 1930s, manufacturing the uniforms for the Nazis. The German retailer, understandably weary of the 21st century and its tedious ‘cancel culture’, have apologised for making the Waffen SS look sleek.

Tate Galleries

The sugar empire that gave its name to the Tate Foundation has found space to catch up with the 21st century and its changing mores. The Tate has an ‘ethics foundation’ that numbers some extraordinarily stellar names: John Akomfrah CBE, Tim Davie CBE, Dame Moya Greene DBE (chair), Rt Hon Lord Neuberger of Abbotsbury, Dame Seona Reid DBE and Jules Sher QC. Yet among the select group of the Tate Foundation’s Trustees and Honorary Members, we find Viktor Vekselberg, a billionaire oligarch with a penchant for Fabergé eggs and close links to Vladimir Putin. You would have thought that Lord Neuberger, the former President of the Supreme Court in the United Kingdom, might have raised an objection to this particular connection. There’s nothing wrong with having connections with the Russian President, it just seems a bit odd, post-Salisbury poisoning attack, that’s all.

Victoria and Albert Museum

Over at South Kensington, the V & A have built the Blavatnik Hall. As the Guardian discovered, Sir Len Blavatnik, does not like being called an ‘oligarch’. So let’s go with ‘Russian tycoon’ to spare his feelings. He gave a million dollars to the Trump Inauguration fund in 2016. He hired retired ‘diplomat’ Sir Michael Pakenham to inveigle himself within the British establishment (not hard when you’ve got £20 billion). He was the funding donor for Oxford University’s ‘Blavatnik School of Government’ and according to Google images, only wears white suits. He’s not a rogue as such, but sponsoring Trump while supporting the arts is a little de trop.
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Now, it’s worth mentioning that all these museums are funded, to differing degrees, by the taxpayer. What is this extra dash of cash there to achieve? We spoke to an insider who used to operate at the highest reaches of the art world. The government funding, they told us, is largely used in the upkeep of the building fabric and the extant collections. Crucially, museums are looking to compete internationally, and to bolster and support their reputations by holding world-class, blockbuster exhibitions and by adding to their collections. To do that, they need extra income.
Our source told us that one recent event is vital to understanding how these institutions operate in regard to fundraising. The Royal Opera House was pledged £10 million by a Cuban-American banker, Alberto Vilar, and changed the name of their central atrium to the ‘Vilar Floral Hall’ in his honour. The money never came through, and Vilar was imprisoned for money laundering. This was, of course, highly embarrassing for the Royal Opera House, but also taught other institutions the importance of ready money over eye-catching pledges. They don’t want a promise: they want cold, hard cash.
Britain’s cultural institutions benefit greatly from the largesse of the super-rich, yet the clamour about ethical funding sources is only growing louder and louder. The assiduous cataloguing by the Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slave ownership at UCL shows how many private fortunes, still extant today, came from untold misery.
The thorny debate around private patronage and public art in London’s museums will only grow more complicated in the coming years.