WASHINGTON, DC — Ever since the National Museum of African Art’s 50th-anniversary exhibition Conversations: African and African American Artworks in Dialogue opened last November, the show has sparked exactly what its name intended: fervent debate, though not about the issues in the art but mainly about what the museum should do with the works belonging to Bill and Camille Cosby. The couple, whose collection accounts for roughly a third of the exhibition, also donated $716,000, essentially funding the entire show. With allegations against the now-infamous comedian mounting, most significantly after New York Mag’s deeply disturbing and extensively researched July article, the museum has faced increased pressure to remove the works or at least change Cosby’s prominent place in it.
In July, the National Museum of African Art decided to post a notice by the exhibition’s entrance stating that it “in no way condones Mr. Cosby’s behavior,” but the show still remains as it did last November, with quotes from Bill and Camille Cosby plastered beside pieces, an entire wall covered with family quilts, and a large painting on view by their daughter, Erika Ranee Cosby.
Other institutions have already struck Cosby from their sites: Disney removed a bronze bust of the comedian after receiving a petition from a niece of one of his victims; New York University just effaced his name from a film program he funded for two decades. Hyperallergic’s own senior editor Jillian Steinhauer has argued adamantly for the removal of Cosby’s picture from Conversations, most recently penning an open letter to the museum in which she calls for the removal of “the portraits of him and the quotes by him, the lines of wall text that make Bill Cosby sound like a kind-hearted family man.” Even the African Art museum’s director Johnnetta Cole admits she is “in a difficult place with this.” But what does the show’s average visitor make of it?
The museum has actually attracted a record number of attendees since Conversations opened, and it turns out that most don’t find fault with it at all — at least not those I spoke with when I visited the show last Tuesday.
“I think it’s a great show. It’s fabulous,” Mary Ann Deluccy, 60, who was visiting from New Jersey said. “The issues are separate. I don’t think they have anything to do with each other. I think it’s a part of history. They’re beautiful works, beautiful pieces, and again, all humans do good things and bad things. He made some terrible mistakes, and I’m not condoning any of the behavior, but that still doesn’t have anything to do with him as an artist, an art collector, and a storyteller.”
Many visitors echoed Deluccy’s stance that a collector’s faults should not factor into the decision to display his art, stating the oft-voiced argument that giving the works public visibility is more important.
“I don’t have an issue where the art came from as long as it’s on display for the public,” college freshman Larissa Mark said. “This exhibit isn’t focused on what Cosby did. It’s a gift from Cosby to have all of these artists displayed for the public.”
Beverly Nyokabi, originally from Kenya, agreed. “I didn’t know he contributed to the exhibition, but I would have come regardless,” she said. “I don’t see what the two things have to do with each other. There’s many sides of each person — and not that I condone what he did — but taking out the exhibition … these are all people who probably would never be noticed or would not be here, otherwise.”
Nyokabi said she had read the exhibition’s advisory sign, but others simply passed it (to the Smithsonian’s credit, it is quite large and stands right at Conversation‘s entryway).
Qiana Toy-ellis, who was in town from Georgia, had no knowledge of the show’s controversy while exploring Conversations, but she emphasized the importance of a show that focuses on African American and African art.
“Considering the allegations … first of all, I’m not really sure because I wasn’t there,” she said. “However, one thing doesn’t have anything to do with the other. The fact that he did this to benefit the African American community has nothing, to me, to do with the rape allegations.
“I don’t think they should take the art down. I feel like an intricate part of history has been missing that has something to do with my culture, which is of African Americans, and the fact that we have just little specs of history here and there … to me, it’s not enough. It’s almost as if society has attempted to say that we weren’t here. And we were. We contributed to the building-up of this country. We had our own culture.
“The fact that we have someone who actually collected art to bring some of our heritage back to us — to remove it would be an injustice, I really do.”
Yet, despite the alleged injustices committed against at least 46 women, no one I spoke with firmly believed the museum should remove the works that represent Cosby or the quotations that share his thoughts on the artwork. The Washington Post critic Philip Kennicott, who writes that Conversations is “now inextricably tied to women’s portrayal of Cosby as a sexual predator,” counted at least 40 appearances of Cosby’s name. That visual presence, however, did not affect the experience of anyone I interviewed.
“That wasn’t a distraction to me as I went through,” Curtis Carter, who founded Marquette University’s Haggerty Museum of Art, said. “I wasn’t interested in the quotes. I think the art has to be respected for what it is, and the artists. Many museums couldn’t have access to art if it weren’t for the generosity of collectors.”
In his column, Kennicott especially finds fault with how the exhibition “celebrates the family life and character.” Did that strike visitors as odd?
“A lot of African American or African history is rooted in family values,” Toy-ellis responded. “So the fact that people may feel [the show] is distorted because it’s Bill Cosby has nothing to do with the African culture overall. Our culture overall is a very nurturing culture. It is a very family-oriented culture.”
Matthew Lipina, 21, from Wisconsin, disagreed. “With him being such a big factor in why this exhibit exists, I get why there’s a wall of quilts there, but I don’t necessarily think it’s okay for him to be preaching about family values given what’s happened.
“But I think as a whole,” Lipina said, “the exhibition and the artworks should stay. I know I haven’t seen any of this work before, so it would be a shame to take it down.”
Removing the works is a controversial move — does connecting object and owner then mean that museums have to dig into the dirty pasts of all its donors? How would institutions measure the gravity of such crimes and the extent of their responses? As Nyokabi sees it, pulling art from the walls would not even convey a lasting message.
“Of course it portrays [Cosby] in a positive light, but a lot of our heroes in the past have shady pasts,” Nyokabi said. “Martin Luther King has a shady past. Malcolm X has a shady past. Did he do something horrible? Yes. But I don’t see what taking this down would prove. You can’t wipe someone off the face of this earth when he’s been popular for that long.”