Wealthy philanthropists have become wary of giving money to the arts in case they receive unwelcome attention from activists, the head of the V&A has claimed.

The V&A was one of several institutions criticised for taking money from the Sackler family, which was accused of profiting from the US opioid crisis as the makers of Oxycontin.

Tristram Hunt, the director of the museum, said that the episode had put off other potential benefactors.

“People are sometimes nervous about giving money nowadays because they come under a lot of scrutiny,” he told Tatler magazine.

He added: “First instincts now are not, as it were, ‘How generous of people it is to support a cultural institution,’ but, ‘What are people whitewashing or greenwashing or bluewashing? What’s the motive?’”

Greenwashing is a description applied to companies that try to launder their image by marketing themselves as environmentally-friendly. Bluewashing relates to corporations appearing to show concern for human rights and ethical labour practices.

The Sackler Courtyard at the V&A was opened in 2017 and continues to bear the family’s name. Dame Theresa Sackler, one of the most generous arts patrons in the UK, was a trustee of the institution until 2020.

Nan Goldin, the photographer, led a “die-in” at the V&A in November 2019 in a bid to force arts institutions to stop accepting donations and sponsorship from the family. Protesters placed bottles of pills around the courtyard and shouted “Sackler money, blood money”.

Nan Goldin leads a demonstration at the Harvard Art Museum in Cambridge, MA, to protest the benefactor of the Sackler Art Museum

Credit: Boston Globe

The Tate and the National Portrait Gallery announced that they would decline donations from the family.

Hunt said: “We have the Sackler Courtyard. We’re obviously keeping the name on the courtyard – Theresa Sackler was a trustee for a period of time. They’ve stopped giving to future projects, so that’s where we are.”

The British Museum is frequently the subject of protests by environmental campaigners over its relationship with BP. Activists also led a protest at the Science Museum earlier this year, where a climate exhibition was sponsored by Shell.

One British Museum trustee, the writer Ahdaf Soueif, resigned in protest at the BP links, amongst other concerns. She said in an open letter: “Schools bring children to the British Museum – the same children who are now living in existential dread of climate change. How do they respond to BP’s logo on the museum’s headline exhibitions?”

In 2019, the Turner Prize was forced to drop Stagecoach as a sponsor, after campaigners pointed out that the bus company’s founder had campaigned against gay marriage and the repeal of Section 28.

Some wealthy figures have pressed ahead with donations in exchange for naming rights, despite the possibility of negative coverage.

Denise Coates, the billionaire founder of online gambling firm Bet365, has funded two galleries at the newly-reopened Courtauld in London.

Coates said she had “found great fulfilment” from the visual arts and wished “to support that journey for others”.

A reluctance from others to donate could not come at a worst time for the arts sector, as the pandemic strained the finances of the UK’s institutions.

Hunt told Tatler: “In a sense, [the V&A was] too successful as an enterprising museum, so when all our cafe, retail, licensing, events fell off a cliff, we were exposed.”

In September, the V&A announced that it was cutting up to 10 per cent of the workforce to cover Covid-related losses. A spokesperson said then that the museum was “in its worst financial position on record”.

The full feature is in the September issue of Tatler, out Wednesday