Over the past few months, the Smithsonian has been criticized for not addressing the rape claims leveled against Bill Cosby. The comedian’s private art collection makes up a third of the works shown at the National Museum of African Art‘s (NMAA) 50th anniversary exhibition, the opening of which coincided with the media storm around the growing number of allegations. The show doesn’t just include art, but also pictures of Cosby and quotations by him.
Now there’s evidence that the Smithsonian didn’t simply ignore the news, but actually tried to hide the fact — or at the very least hoped nobody would find out — that Cosby and his wife Camille Cosby funded the entire show. According to the AP, the couple donated $716,000 for the exhibit, an amount that “virtually covers the entire cost.”
While it’s not an uncommon arrangement these days, the news release and exhibition catalogue for the show did not include any indication that the Cosbys had bankrolled it. That’s in direct violation, as the AP points out, of museum industry guidelines requiring funding sources be publicized in such cases. The Smithsonian claims the information was available to anyone who requested it, but that’s just the thing — you don’t usually have to ask. Donor information is almost always plastered all over the press materials. The omission makes it look as though the museum knew the implications of showing Cosby’s art collection and tried to mitigate the controversy it would undoubtedly provoke.
When it opened last November, critics debated whether the Smithsonian should take down the show. Writing in The Atlantic, Kriston Capps argued for its removal, while Hyperallergic’s own Jillian Steinhauer felt the museum should at least address the matter more seriously. “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,” she wrote.
To date, the Smithsonian continues to deflect any criticism over the exhibition. Speaking to the AP, Richard Kurin, the institution’s undersecretary for art, history, and culture, acknowledged the sexual violence allegations but stressed that they were not relevant. “We certainly don’t condone his behavior,” Kurin said. “We’re just as deeply disturbed and disappointed as I think everybody else. But it’s not about Mr. Cosby. This is an art exhibit.” A statement posted on the NMAA’s website makes a similar argument.
But the plain truth of the matter is that the show itself has inspired less press than the Smithsonian and how opaquely it’s dealt with the problem. In particular, National Museum of African Art director Johnnetta Cole has declined to discuss the exhibit. As the AP notes, her relationship with the Cosby family goes back at least two decades to when she was president of Spelman College, a historically black school in Atlanta, and Camille Cosby wrote the university a $20 million check (the school recently cancelled the visiting scholar professorship it endowed). What’s more, Camille Cosby sits on the NMAA’s board and initiated the loan.
“It just raises a little eyebrow that a trustee of a museum is lending (her) own collection, funding part of the exhibition, and the exhibition is highlighting works … by less well-known artists whose work is considered by some to be undervalued,” art market expert Noah Kupferman told the AP. “Repositioning these artists’ works as suddenly important could have significant positive effect on their economic value.” That would, by extension, put more money in the pocketbook of an alleged serial rapist.