The Smithsonian Won’t Take Down Cosby’s Artworks

There’s a smallish storm abrew about a Smithsonian exhibit that’s comprised one-third by never-before-exhibited artworks donated from Bill and Camille Cosby’s private collection. While many of Cosby’s affiliated organizations have distanced themselves from the comedian since the admission came out last week that he bought and gave drugs to women in order to assault them, the Smithsonian is declining to take down Cosby’s collection in the National Museum of African Art’s 50th anniversary exhibition.

The Smithsonian is taking some heat over this decision for a few different reasons, including:

  • They’re exhibiting art that’s owned by an admitted rapist, and the exhibit could increase the value of the artworks (ergo the net worth of the owner).
  • Camille Cosby is on the museum’s board and initiated the loan of the artworks, which means that there could be a conflict of interest in exhibiting the artworks, entirely regardless of her husband’s misconduct.
  • The museum’s director, Johnetta Cole, is close with the Cosbys – they made a $20 million gift to Spelman College when Cole was its president.
  • The Cosbys gifted the museum $716,000 to fund the exhibit. The museum was supposed to make the information about their donors publicly available, but they didn’t include the Cosbys’ names on their press materials for the exhibit, which is pretty standard operating procedure as far as exhibits go. The Smithsonian defended itself by saying that the information was available if someone asked, but that’s not exactly making it public, and the timing is really suspect on this: The exhibit began in November, right when Cosby’s victims started making their accusations public.
  • The Smithsonian has removed artworks from exhibits in the past after facing public pressure, including one instance in which they were pressured by Catholic groups to remove artworks from an exhibit on sexual difference.

Art is, or should be, a part of the public trust, and it’s great that the Smithsonian museums make art available to the public free of charge. But then you have to grapple with how they manage to do that, and if the answer is “The exhibit is funded by an admitted rapist,” it should be hard for the Smithsonian to viably defend the exhibit.

Their defense is twofold: First, that taking the exhibit down would compromise their curatorial integrity. But they already shot themselves in the foot on that one. They’ve been willing to compromise their curatorial integrity for conservative causes and censor gay artists in the process the past. Furthermore, you could argue that they compromised their curatorial integrity as soon as they chose to exhibit artworks from the private collection of one of their board members, some of which were created by that board member’s children, and some of which are portraits of that board member’s husband. Saying that caving to public pressure would compromise their curatorial integrity puts the blame on the public for that compromise, when maybe the Smithsonian should consider putting the blame for squarely on its board.

Second, that there’s artistic merit to the loaned artworks. Which is true, at least for some of them – the Cosby collection includes artworks created by former slaves, for example, and lifting those artworks up to the status of exhibition in a Smithsonian museum has merit both artistically and socially. But some of them are just portraits of Bill Cosby, a rapist. The exhibition of those portraits are both advancing his public image and advancing his net worth, a net worth that Cosby has leveraged against several women in order to drug and rape them, and then hire a legal team to try to sweep it under the rug.

But, as it stands, the artworks aren’t coming down. The Smithsonian is being pretty clear about that. The tragedy in the whole thing is the Smithsonian’s refusal to believe that they’ve made any poor choices in this whole process. You can’t learn from the mistake of implicitly endorsing an admitted rapist – regardless of the Smithsonian’s statement on the issue – and thereby entrenching that rapist’s cultural clout, if you can’t admit you made that mistake in the first place.


[Washington Post]


[Image via Smithsonian]

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