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Bill and Camille Cosby being interviewed by the AP at the National Museum of African Art with one of the works from his collection, by Henry Ossawa Tanner, “The Thankful Poor” (1894), in the background. The full video is embedded below. (screenshot via YouTube)

As rape allegations against Bill Cosby have continued to emerge this week, with a fifth and sixth woman stepping forward to publicly accuse the iconic comedian, the backlash has been swift: NBC and Netflix have both dropped plans for new projects with Cosby, while TV Land announced it would stop airing reruns of The Cosby Show indefinitely. But Cosby’s collaboration with the art establishment remains alive and well, as dozens of works from Bill and wife Camille Cosby’s personal collection are currently on view at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art.

The couple’s collection was the impetus for the exhibition Conversations: African and African American Artworks in Dialogue, which places 62 African-American pieces owned by the Cosbys alongside roughly 100 African pieces from the Smithsonian institution. A press release for the show touts it as the “first public viewing” of “one of the world’s preeminent private collections of African American art.” Part of the museum’s 50th-anniversary celebration, Conversations opened on November 9 and is scheduled to remain on view for over a year, through “early 2016.”

The allegations against Cosby, it should be noted, are not new; they’ve been out in the public arena, reported on, and written about, for a decade now. There’s no question that museum staff would have known about them when the Cosby exhibition was being conceived and planned; what they didn’t and couldn’t know is how the charges — and the attention given to them — would escalate right around the time of the opening of the show.

So, what is a museum to do?

Well, for starters, they should not do what they are currently doing: ignoring the situation. As far as I can tell, the institution has not muttered a single word in regards to the allegations — which have mostly not been pursued in court, but overall appear to come from 15 women. I emailed the institution’s head of communications to ask for a comment or statement on the matter and received this nonresponse:

The museum’s mission is to inspire conversations about the beauty, power and diversity of African arts and cultures worldwide. Exhibiting Conversations: African and African American Artworks in Dialogue gives us the opportunity to showcase one of the world’s preeminent private collections of African American art, which will help further meaningful dialogue between Africa and the African diaspora. The exhibition will run through 2016.

This is not a statement regarding the allegations against Cosby; it is a refusal to even acknowledge that they exist. When I followed up to clarify that this was, indeed, intended as a response to the rape accusations, I received no reply.

Simmie Knox, “Portrait of Bill and Camille Cosby” (1984), oil on canvas (photo by David Stansbury, image courtesy the artist) (click to enlarge)

But of course, the museum’s hands are tied. The institution cannot say anything, because surely they’ve received a directive not to say anything from Cosby, who himself also refuses to say anything. Whether or not the museum is angling for a gift down the line, they surely want to avoid pissing off the big-name collector and potential donor who also happens to be a high-profile alleged serial rapist.

I don’t know if the museum should cancel Conversations. Undoubtedly a lot of time and money were spent on this exhibition, and calling it off would leave the institution in a bind. Not only that, but I’m not sure a person’s horrific deeds should preclude his art collection from being shown; it’s the art and artists (and museum-going public) who would end up bearing the brunt of such a decision. If the institution could somehow distance itself from Cosby while still showing his artworks — release a genuine statement, perhaps add new context to the exhibition or organize an event about violence against women, push up the closing date — that would seem reasonable.

But that, of course, is a fantasy. The Cosby collection does not exist without Bill Cosby, and the National Museum of African Art would not have access to it without him either. It’s hard to think of a more perfect illustration of the mess our museum system has become, of the way our institutions are completely beholden to rich people. When a museum shows a private collection — an all-too-common practice these days — it is anointing not just the art but the person who had the good taste (and money) to choose it. And it’s there that the line gets drawn. Critique an institution all you want, the art world says, and we will laugh along with you and show your work; criticize the powerful people who actually grease its wheels, and we’ll cancel your exhibition.

And so, the National Museum of African Art — which, just to remind you, is part of a larger institution that’s substantially funded by the US government — sits silent. It refuses to utter the word “rape,” refuses to acknowledge that the existence of these women and their allegations, and in doing so, it cleaves morality from art.

Correction: This article originally stated that the Smithsonian Institution is administered by the US government; in fact, it is substantially funded by the government but run independently. It has been corrected.

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Jillian Steinhauer

Jillian Steinhauer is a former senior editor of Hyperallergic. She writes largely about the intersection of art...

65 replies on “What Should the Smithsonian Do with Its Show of Bill Cosby’s Art Collection?”

        1. Normally museums are good at quietly signaling “this is junk that we put up under the guise of telling the collector’s family story.”

  1. I don’t think the Smithsonian should be making any sort of decisions based on allegations of Cosby. Let him go down in court, then government-subsidized institutions have a legitimate basis for whatever action they like with his art collection. I’d still like the see the art, whatever Cosby is or did. If the art gets taken down, it is worse for the public than for Cosby. He’s screwed no matter what.

    Keep the art.

    1. Unless there more recent allegations surface, there will be no day in court. Sta. of Limitations has expired.

      1. That’s why silence is his best strategy. He doesn’t have the opportunity to use the “the truth will come out in court” type line and defending himself against these question would escalate the media attention. He could sue people for defamation, but even if he won he’d look like an asshole and still not get his entertainment career back.

  2. So should we take down the Gauguins while we are at it? The art stands on its own, regardless of the personal life of the artist or owner.

    1. The Gaugains and all those other nasty Impressionist can just be packed up and set to me.. I will send the address.

    1. All that beautiful art work created by African American artists and you have nerve to say it should be sold at an auction and the proceeds given to those opportunistic hoes. Shouldn’t be surprised seeing how this country has been stealing and raping African Americans since inception. Those ugly women wanted fame and all they got was a dick stuck in there mouth and now they want to cry. And now they should be compensated? Sounds like Kobes situation..

      1. If Shamu doesn’t want to work at Sea World anymore, should he just leave?
        “Those ugly women”…c’mon you know better. You really do. Your mom and sisters ain’t gonna like you saying that.

        One or two may get/got money, no more. I worked with Cosby very briefly in the 90’s, he knew he had enormous power over women. Shall we discuss it civilly?

      2. Opportunistic? NO ONE wants to be famous for having been raped by someone. Almost none of the victims stand to gain any kind of financial compensation because the statute of limitations has expired. There is no “opportunity” except holding a rapist accountable and hopefully protect and support other women who have suffered, and of course the “opportunity” to be victim-blamed and harassed by the general public too.

        1. Nice idea there, but there is no legal basis for anyone or any institution to force him to sell his art, even if he was convicted in court. American law isn’t governed by people getting pissed off. Even museums – at least those who are members of the AAM – are disallowed from selling works in their collection, unless the proceeds go back into collecting more works.

        2. They cannot force him to do anything, it is his collection. But the exhibit is not his, the art is simply loaned. The art has nothing to do with him.

  3. If they take down Mr. Cosbys art collection they should take down all the art works of the former presidents who owned slaves, raped women and children, and committed crimes against humanity!! White men are celebrated for there atrocious barbaric acts, but when it’s an African American man he is vilified. I for one will now plan a trip to the Smithsonian to see the exhibit. Team Cosby all day. Hey, Hey, Hey!!

    1. Some of us manage to be disgusted by slave owners and barbaric rapists who are white and did their still-celebrated acts of violence 300 years ago, AND a rapist who has been operating consistently over the past 4 decades, who is still alive to face repercussions, whose victims are still alive. It’s not like we need to choose.

      1. You might as well regard Mr. Scott as a troll if you have to explain something as obvious as that to him in a comment thread.

  4. We should all shut up and stop talking and talking about it… It’s a big problem and needs to be handled with delicacy not with everyone freaking out all over the place.. This needs time to work out properly for everybody.

    1. It’s got his name all over it, and it was definitely arranged to coincide with the launch of his (now cancelled) new TV show and career resurgence. It was a strategic form of advertising for Bill Cosby. His name should be taken off the materials and they should denounce his raping ways.

      1. They should not make any comment about him personally. There is art out there stolen by Hitler, displaying it is not an endorsement of Hitler.

  5. true about dissonance wrt morality/ethics of the artist and a piece of art. I don’t accept the principle that art transcends ordinary human experience in its realm of creation from some sacred place in an individual and doesn’t need to be aware of collective responsibility. That said I believe there will always be African American art, there is work being done as you read this. Are they getting enough money to work and pay their bills? Mostly not until someone like Mr. Cosby makes them part of his collection. The Smithsonian panders to wealthy classes and protects its investments.

  6. if museums dismissed every artwork associated with a misogynist or womanizer, the collections would dwindle far lower than cosby’s contribution.

  7. I think he should donate the art and a trust to care for it to the Smithsonian so it can continue to benefit the public, divorce the Cosby name from the collection entirely, and rename the collection after a feminist leader like bell hooks or audre lorde, or on the behalf of an organization that does justice work.

  8. I love the portrait that Mr. Knox painted, wish I had one. My prayers go out to the Cosby family. Camille is such a loving wife to have supported him all these years. That is LOVE!!

    1. I bet you thought the same thing of Mrs. Spitzer, or Mrs. Sanford, or Mrs. Clinton. They stand by their men and possibly, just possibly, turn an eye to the enabling.
      Stand by your man. And if he’s enormously wealthy or socially powerful, stand even closer.

      “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in great moral crises maintain their neutrality.”

      Dante

      You bet, it’s a type of love, though.

  9. The link embedded in the sentence, “Critique an institution all you want, the art world says, and we will laugh along with you and show your work; criticize the powerful people who actually grease its wheels, and we’ll cancel your exhibition,” seems to disprove what the sentence says: The link is to the Wikipedia page on Hans Haacke, which clearly states that when he critiqued the Rockefellers at MoMA, of which they were major backers, there was no pushback from the museum; whereas when he did his piece at the Guggenheim on the Shapolsky real estate holdings–no direct connection to the Guggenheim–the show was canceled by the museum’s director because he felt, more or less, that “that’s not art,” a different issue altogether.

    1. Thanks for pointing that out, Barry. I had thought I’d read and sincerely believed that the subject of Haacke’s critique was connected to the Guggenheim, but looks like I got that wrong.

  10. “The heart of the matter is this: A defender of Bill Cosby must, effectively, conjure a vast conspiracy, created to bring down one man, seemingly just out of spite. And people will do this work of conjuration, because it is hard to accept that people we love in one arena can commit great evil in another.

    It is hard to believe that Bill Cosby is a serial rapist because the belief doesn’t just indict Cosby, it indicts us. It damns us for drawing intimate conclusions about people based on pudding-pop commercials and popular TV shows. It destroys our ability to lean on icons for our morality. And it forces us back into a world where seemingly good men do unspeakably evil things, and this is just the chaos of human history.”

    Ta-Nehisi Coates

  11. How about we lay down our pitchforks and let him be judged in a court of law first. The museum doesn’t need to make a statement by taking down his art collection. They returned what I feel to be a more than adequate response. They stand on the side of the artwork, and what it means to appreciate it and the culture it represents. It should stand and be appreciated, as others have said. The hatred toward an innocent man who is yet to be proven guilty by any facts whatsoever goes against the spirit of this artwork.

    1. “an innocent man who is yet to be proven guilty by any facts”

      Woodward and Bernstein went through public hell for years asking tough questions. Ask questions, probe all answers.

  12. HEY-HEY-HEY! — Until a substantive journalistic investigation, finding of facts, and a evidence-based legal prosecution and trial takes place, I don’t give a damn about allegations. Therefore, for me and millions more, the only real news is that Bill and Camille Cosby have loaned their large and legendary African American art collection to the Smithsonian for public viewing. I plan to see it more than once with family and friends.

    Maybe I’m too old school, but genuine journalists (even lawyers) don’t ask questions or explore allegations without already knowing and having the facts. Cosby was right to not respond to an allegation based on no evidence, prosecution or trial. The passive-aggressive news hacks that chose to keep asking him about the allegations are guilty of defamation. If I were Cosby, a relentless defamation lawsuit would be made against the individual news hacks, then their enabling news outlets. At 77, Cosby has nothing to lose. Perhaps then, they will do some actual investigative journalism for actual evidence — evidence that we can all agree to as real news, rather than sex-laced infotainment.

    Are we just unquestioning dupes? Have many in the infotainment-oriented news media and the alleged victims correctly calculated that this is what turns us on, tune us in and what we will blindly believe — without certified evidence? How about getting any 1 or 2 or 3 of the numerous “victims” to produce something — anything or anyone — to corroborate their allegations. At the very least the alleged victims would have circumstantial evidence.

    Moreover, until genuine evidence is presented to support any person’s rape allegations or news media innuendo, I will be going to every Smithsonian art exhibit of the Cosby’s art collection and watching any show that Cosby produces for TV, online or DVD — at least until facts, proof and evidence-based journalism occurs.

    Thank God my son chose economics over journalism at college. No matter, how long this so called news story lasts, character assassination of an “innocent until proven guilty” person has been achieved — and genuine rape victims are further sullied.

    1. “genuine journalists (even lawyers) don’t ask questions or explore allegations without already knowing and having the facts.”

      Tough logic. Watergate? I suspect so much comes from the exposing of allegations and rumors, then facts are uncovered and/or thoroughly explored if they exist. WMD? Allegations prove nothing, but that is a place to start. They dig for the facts.

  13. Very good african art i think so is the best of Modern e Contemporary art this art we will invent money and Space i wish the best museum in africa of Contemporary art

  14. I don’t believe the court of public opinion trumps the court of law. Sadly these women didn’t speak up. I’ve had things (waking up to hands all down my pants) done to me and although it still bothers me, I’ve decided it’s not worth thinking about. If I wanted him tried, I should have done it then or within a reasonable time frame. What we are doing here by accepting allegations as truth is saying that the legal system doesn’t matter, investigations, DNA evidence etc do not matter (for today’s crimes at least). Not to mention I find it hard to comprehend he repeatedly did this and NO ONE ever said anything until it was 30,40,50 years later. Shame on them. Shame on them for making it harder on those that do claim rape and get judged. As a reminder, bill Clinton has a ton of allegations against him and I don’t see tv stations and colleges canceling his speaking engagements.

    1. Many of these women did speak up, but I understand that that does not fit with your victim blaming narrative. Maybe you should read a bit more about the now 18 cases instead of shaming those who have come forward.

  15. I’m sorry, I must have missed him being convicted of a crime? I don’t see that the museum needs to justify its decisions to a blogger. The museum appears to be taking the high road and not trying Cosby in the court of popular opinion.

  16. If the art is worthy of exhibit, forget about the political correctness of displaying it. Display it on it’s own merit as art. If on the other hand it is there only because of who created it, then review the motives for the exhibit.

  17. The director of the museum, Dr, Johnetta Cole was president of Spellman College when the Cosbys donated $20 million. I think the museum’s website says that it is aware of the allegations. So far, 21 women have come forward publicly.

  18. My family and I were fortunate enough to view this exhibit and I was awestruck. The amount of time it takes to build such a collection is inspiring and I would hope that one day my husband and I would be able to have something (on a much smaller scale, more than likely). To remove the exhibit would be a disservice to those who wouldn’t be able to see the works of Tanner, Basquiat, Catlett, Beardan and Lawrence, among others, all in one place. The exhibit showcases black artists across the diaspora and through several centuries. I’m aware of no stand alone museum that does this, other than the Studio Museum in Harlem. This alone is reason to keep the exhibit open.

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