Freer/Sackler gets a new name: the National Museum of Asian Art

Red banners signify the Smithsonian’s Freer/Sackler museum’s rebranding to the National Museum of Asian Art. Washington Post photo by Katherine Frey

WASHINGTON – The Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery have long described themselves as the Smithsonian’s Asian art museums. Now the two institutions want to be known as the National Museum of Asian Art.

Don’t call it a name change, though. Museum officials say it is a rebranding that clarifies the missions of the joint institutions. And, they say, it has absolutely nothing to do with international protests over the Sackler family’s connection to the opioid crisis.

“It’s a shift toward a unified brand and not away from the gallery names,” Deputy Director Lori Duggan Gold said. The new brand will help visitors understand “that they can expect to see Asian art during a visit to a museum.”

“National Museum of Asian Art” appears in large print on the new logo and at the top of the museums’ redesigned website. The museum’s legal names – the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery – are in tiny print below (and on the second page of the website). Both names appear in stone on the museums’ exteriors.

The National Museum of Asian Art replaces “Freer/Sackler, Where Asia meets America,” a tagline that Duggan Gold noted “didn’t include the word museum at all.” The new brand was designed in-house.

Georgetown University marketing professor Karthik Easwar likes the change, but disputes the museum’s description of it.

“I don’t think this is a rebrand. It is a renaming, it is making it more clear what this place is offering. It is clarifying and communicating the brand’s promise that you would not have known from the names Freer or Sackler,” Easwar said.

The Freer Gallery of Art opened on the National Mall in 1923 to showcase the collection of American industrialist and donor Charles Lang Freer. The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery was built next door in 1987, after Sackler donated 1,000 objects and $4 million for a museum to house them. The museums have separate collections (which now include more than 44,000 objects) but they operate on a single budget, with a shared advisory board and staff. The Freer can exhibit only works in its collection, and those works are not allowed to travel. The Sackler can accept loaned objects and can loan pieces from its collection.

The change comes as protests continue at cultural and educational institutions that bear the name of the Sacklers, the extended family behind the pharmaceutical giant Purdue Pharma, which manufactures the painkiller OxyContin.

Brothers Arthur, Mortimer and Raymond Sackler, who founded a company that became Purdue Pharma, donated to dozens of high-profile institutions, both individually and jointly, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim, the Tate and the Victoria and Albert museums, as well as Harvard, Princeton and Yale universities. The Washington museum is one of several institutions targeted by protests led by photographer Nan Goldin calling attention to the source of the Sackler wealth.

In June, Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, called on the Smithsonian to remove Sackler’s name. Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch III said the institution is legally bound by the donation contract signed in 1982. Jillian Sackler, Arthur’s widow, had no comment about the change.

Several museums have announced that they will no longer accept donations from the family, while the Louvre in Paris removed the Sackler name from its gallery wall.

“It feels like a mini-victory,” Goldin said about the Smithsonian’s move. “The Louvre did it. They were the most courageous and righteous, and hopefully other museums will distance themselves from this name.”

Arthur M. Sackler died in 1987, months before the Washington museum opened and nine years before OxyContin was introduced. His brothers bought out his share of the company after his death. Jillian Sackler has said repeatedly that neither she nor his children profited from OxyContin.

Stephen Greyser, a Harvard Business School branding expert, called the museum’s move a “sensible rebranding” that also happens to minimize the Freer and Sackler names.

“Understanding who you are and what you do and having that be clear to relevant audience is one of the core elements of all branding,” Greyser said. The new brand describes who they are and what they do, he said, “and it happens to serve the purpose of subsuming the Freer and Sackler names. Freer and Sackler become not the stars of the show, but the co-stars.”

Easwar, the Georgetown professor, says the new name may cause some confusion as residents and tourists learn that it is the same as the former Freer/Sackler.

“But in the long-term it’s probably a good thing,” he said. “It’s more consistent (with other Smithsonian branches), more reflective of the experience you get. And I think it’s important that some of the highlighted places on the Mall carry the national brand, the national imagery, that the Mall is for all of us.”



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