Most of us would be found wanting if the ethical spotlight were shone on us, says Eleanor Jolliffe

Eleanor Jolliffe

The news that the National Portrait Gallery has given up a £1m donation from the Sackler Trust for its Jamie Fobert and Purcell redevelopment is a good demonstration of the ethical tightropes we all walk.

It was announced as a joint decision, with the trust saying it had “temporarily paused all new philanthropic giving, while still honouring existing commitments” until “We can be confident that it will not be a distraction for institutions that are applying for grants”.

The distraction, of course, is that the trust is the philanthropic arm of the Sackler family, multiple members of whom are currently facing lawsuits in the US related to Purdue Pharma’s role in the US opioid crisis. The Sackler-owned pharmaceutical company manufactures the addictive prescription painkiller Oxycontin.

Perhaps mercifully Sackler has suspended its giving rather than requiring institutions to reject its funding, barely keeping the lid on a nuanced and knotty can of worms.

The question of funding sources is one that can only hurt arts institutions, who often rely on corporate sponsorships from banks, philanthropic trusts and energy giants. If they were forced to refuse funding from the Sackler Trust could they continue to accept sponsorship from BP, which profits from fossil fuels; or Merrill Lynch, given its role in the 2008 financial crisis; or Siemens, which relied on forced labour from concentration camp inmates during WWII?

I wish I could be clearer on where I stood myself on this issue. I wish however that I felt less morally conflicted by the news.

Part of me, the part that has witnessed what substance abuse can do to a family, is pleased that charitable institutions in the UK are not actively profiting from the pain and addiction caused by Oxycontin.


However, the side that enjoys London’s brilliant museums is sad that this funding source has, for now, dried up. I can’t help but draw, perhaps tenuous, connections with Michael Jackson’s music or the Great Wall of China. Separating the art from the artist, or a great feat of engineering from the pain and suffering it was built on feels like a sidestep of the issue. But somehow the crimes of the creator don’t take away the delight of their achievements.

As yet this issue doesn’t seem to have significantly disrupted building projects. But there is potential for the impact on philanthropy and the building projects (and therefore architectural services) it pays for to be significant and damaging.

A previous beneficiary of Sackler money is the Serpentine Gallery whose newest building was designed by Zaha Hadid Architects and funded by the trust. It opened in 2013, so avoided the current controversy. Nonetheless it found itself at the centre of a firestorm recently when it emerged the architect behind this summer’s pavilion, Junya Ishigami and Associates, reportedly offers internships at its Tokyo practice with the “employment” terms of a six-day working week, with core hours of 11am to midnight over a minimum of three months, during which interns provide their own computer equipment.

This can hardly be called anything other than profiteering disguised as “education”.

The Serpentine Gallery has since stated that it supports “only paid positions” and has apparently been in touch with Ishigami to ensure no unpaid interns are exploited in the design of the pavilion.

It might be termed negligence on the part of the Serpentine not to have thought to check the workforce would be paid; or maybe there was a naive disbelief that anyone would still think this was acceptable. A naive disbelief I think most of us fall into every time we go to the supermarket.


I would very much like to say that slavery is abhorrent. I would like to be able to draw a clear line from which to defend my moral high ground. The trouble is I am (sadly) certain that simply by owning jeans bought on the British high street and by specifying concrete I have probably already done my bit to contribute to the sum of human suffering.

Leonard E Read’s famous essay, I, Pencil, demonstrates that millions of human beings are involved in the design and manufacture of a single pencil. If this is true of a pencil how many more souls are involved in the design and construction of the simplest loft extension, let alone in the construction of a project the scale of Crossrail or a London skyscraper?

Even by diligently checking suppliers and sub-contractors against modern day slavery policies can we really track supply chains back across borders and between languages to the raw elements? I would say probably not.

>> Also read: We should strip RIBA awards from practices that exploit interns


However, I do not believe the fact that the world is a complex place gives me carte blanche to ignore all the ethical issues I face in the office. To be honest I haven’t worked out an answer or a snappy opinion about this yet. It is a bit too complicated to be reduced to a slogan or a refusal to buy anything other than Fair Trade coffee.

Public opinion is against the Sacklers. Questions are being asked loudly about BP’s sponsorship of major British Museum exhibitions, and unpaid internships are now seen for what they are: exploitative and exclusive.

I would like to think our profession has the skills to get ahead of this and start making a change for the better.

I would love to see a database similar to the green book that would make it simpler to be clearer on the ethical and labour implications of what we are specifying… so perhaps beginning to ask around about that is my next move.

>> Also read: Why BD doesn’t offer unpaid internships