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A Sign the Smithsonian Is Getting Nervous About Cosby Exhibition

Bill and Camille Cosby discussing their art collection (Screen grab via Youtube)
Bill and Camille Cosby discussing their art collection (screen grab via Youtube)

Over the past few months, critics have been debating over what the National Museum of African Art should do with its 50th anniversary exhibit Conversations: African and African American Artworks in Dialogue, which includes dozens of artworks from Bill and Camille Cosby’s personal collection. Shut it down immediately? Move up the closing date? Remove the Cosby-owned items?

Now, in the wake of new controversy over AP’s discovery that the Cosbys bankrolled the entire show, the Smithsonian has finally mustered up the courage to take some visible form of action. According to the wire service, it has posted an advisory sign outside the exhibit explaining that it does not condone Cosby’s alleged sexual violence. “[The show] is fundamentally about the artworks and the artists who created them, not Mr. Cosby,” it reads. The text was also uploaded to the museum’s website.

The new message regarding the Cosbys on the NMAI website (via conversations.africa.si.edu)
The new message regarding the Cosbys on the Smithsonian website (via conversations.africa.si.edu)

The sign hints at an argument the Smithsonian has long had in its favor: shutting down the exhibition because of Cosby’s crimes would set a frightening precedent. The people who buy art and loan it to museums aren’t always the saintliest among us, and cultural institutions shouldn’t be expected to police them. Granted, it’s not often that exhibitions are stocked and funded by a beloved media personality accused of stomach-curling crimes. But it’s also easy to sympathize with the Smithsonian over the unfortunate timing of the news, which coincided with the show’s opening and made it appear the museum was sanctioning Cosby’s actions.

Through their public statement, the institution has attempted to at least publicly distance itself from Cosby and redirect the public’s attention to the people who have lost out the most (aside from the victims) in all this: the artists. Though the show includes works by several recognizable names — Henry Ossawa Tanner, Aaron Douglas, Jacob Lawrence, Malick Sidibé, and Romare Bearden — it features many more by less-known but deserving artists. People like David C. Driskell, William Henry Johnson, Minnie Evans, Elizabeth Catlett, and Godfried Donkor, to name just a handful. It’s sad that they’ve gotten wrapped up in all this.

But will the sign be enough to quell everyone’s qualms? Maybe, maybe not. In many ways, it really only reiterates the same stance the museum has held since the controversy first began in November, and it doesn’t address the problem that exhibiting Cosby’s collection will inevitably increase its value. It also comes a full eight months after the initial controversy began. For some, it may seem like too little, too late.

Here’s the full text:

A Message to Our Visitors about This Exhibition

Allegations that publicly surfaced when we opened this exhibition in November 2014, now combined with recent revelations about Bill Cosby’s behavior, cast a negative light on what should be a joyful exploration of African and African American art in this gallery.

The National Museum of African Art in no way condones Mr. Cosby’s behavior. We continue to present Conversations: African and African American Artworks in Dialogue because it is fundamentally about the artworks and the artists who created them, not Mr. Cosby.

Most of the objects are from the permanent collection of the National Museum of African Art. About one-third are on loan from Camille and Bill Cosby. Though the exhibition does recognize their role in assembling those works, the purpose of the exhibition is to examine the interplay of artistic creativity in African and African American art — something that has been part of our museum’s history since our founding more than 50 years ago. The exhibition brings public attention to artists whose art has not been seen, art that tells powerful and poignant stories about African American experiences.

We invite you, our valued visitors, to provide your comments in the Visitor Book we have placed in the hallway at the exit to this exhibition. You can also send comments to our website at conversations.africa.si.edu.

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