Johnnetta Cole served as president of two historically black colleges, wrote books on racism and sexism in African American communities and is a sought-after speaker on museum diversity. But, as she enters the last years of her career, she is perhaps best known as director of the Smithsonian museum that was caught up in the unfolding disgrace of comedian Bill Cosby.
As she celebrated her 80th birthday last week, Cole reflected on her work in education and, since 2009, as director of the National Museum of African Art. One of the smallest museums in the Smithsonian complex, it has struggled of late to attract visitors and donations, efforts not helped by last year’s controversial exhibition, “Conversations: African and African-American Artworks in Dialogue.” Featuring dozens of pieces from Bill and Camille Cosby’s private art collection, the show was meant to bring attention and traffic to the gallery during its 50th anniversary year. But it opened as the first of dozens of women were coming forward with accusations of sexual assault against the comedian.
In her first Washington Post interview since the Cosby firestorm, Cole shot down criticism of the exhibition even as she described the toll it exacted.
“It was a tough year for me professionally as director of this museum and personally because of my long-standing relationship and respect and admiration for Dr. Camille Cosby and Dr. Bill Cosby,” Cole said. “It was a remarkable, first-time-ever, exquisitely curated exhibition. The art speaks for itself, not its owners.”
Cole’s relationship with the Cosbys dates back four decades. The couple donated $20 million to Atlanta’s Spelman College in 1987, on the day Cole became its first African American female president. Cole dedicated her 1993 book, “Conversations: Straight Talk With America’s Sister President,” to the couple, and she served as chairwoman of the National Visionary Leadership Project, a nonprofit founded by Camille Cosby. Similarly, Cosby served on the African art museum’s advisory board from 2010 until last year.
There’s also a faint echo of Cosby’s experience in Cole’s own life. In “Gender Talk: The Struggle for Women’s Equality in African American Communities,” a book Cole wrote with Beverly Guy-Sheftall in 2003, she disclosed that her first husband’s infidelities contributed to their divorce after 22 years of marriage. She also alluded to a betrayal by her second husband, Arthur Robinson, that “pierced the core of so much that [I] had spoken about publicly, written about, and worked against,” she wrote. In 2001, Robinson pleaded guilty to charges of child molestation and aggravated sexual assault involving a 12-year-old, according to media reports.
“Obviously, I bring and brought to the decision to keep that exhibition open my own experiences,” Cole said. “I love the words of sociologist C. Wright Mills, who said ‘I will try to be objective. I do not claim to be detached.’ I have found as a public intellectual, as a scholar, as a museum director, that that’s a good way to look at it.”
Described by friends and colleagues as loyal, generous and empathetic, Cole has a powerful charm that commands a room. She sports short hair and chunky black glasses that make her appear decades younger. She speaks with a preacherly cadence and often cites African proverbs, such as “No matter how long the night, the dawn will break,” and “She who teaches must learn, and she who learns must teach.”
Her lack of experience with museum practices may have caused her to miss the conflicts of interest at the heart of “Conversations,” museum professionals say. The exhibition was funded by a $716,000 donation from Bill Cosby. It spotlighted his private collection, thus potentially raising its value. Camille Cosby’s role on the museum’s advisory council was another red flag.
As the number of allegations against Bill Cosby increased, there were calls for Cole to close the exhibition. In response, the museum put up a sign saying that it recognized the serious allegations against the comedian but that the exhibition was “about the artworks and the artists who created them.”
Nine months later, Cole wrote in an op-ed that when she accepted the Cosbys’ donation and loan of artwork, she was unaware of the allegations against the comedian. “Had I known, I would not have moved forward with this particular exhibition,” she wrote. In addition, she said, “as someone deeply committed to human rights for all people, and especially because of my long-standing engagement with women’s issues, I am devastated by the allegations and revelations surrounding Bill Cosby. I must also say that in no way will I ever condone anyone committing sexual violence against women and girls.”
The exhibition remained on view for five more months.
“I spoke when I thought it was appropriate to speak and in the way I thought was appropriate,” Cole said when asked why she did not address the accusations directly. “I am currently director of the National Museum of African Art. I am not a professor of women’s studies at this moment. The next thing you will do is ask me about Mr. Trump and those accusations. That’s not the role I’m in now.” [Smithsonian museum director breaks silence on Cosby exhibition controversy]
Nearly two years later, Cole seems to have weathered the controversy.
“She’s not Teflon, and I don’t want to say she has totally escaped,” said Kym Rice, director of the museum studies program at George Washington University. “The new [African American] museum opened to such acclaim, and she has benefited from that. Maybe because the administration supported her, and protected her, she didn’t have to resign over this.”
Cole spent most of her professional life in academia. A professor of anthropology with a PhD from Northwestern University, she taught for decades before gaining national prominence as president of Spelman. In 10 years there, she raised Spelman’s rankings and profile and built its endowment, efforts that garnered her national recognition. She left Spelman to teach at Emory University, then became president of Bennett College in Greensboro, N.C. She was the first woman elected to the board of Coca-Cola Enterprises, the first African American chairman of the board of the United Way of America, president of the Association of Art Museum Directors and a member of the scholarly advisory council of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Her academic robes are on display in the museum.
“She often says she flunked retirement,” said Guy-Sheftall, referring to the times Cole has reinvented herself. “She has a great willingness to remake herself, in very different kinds of spaces. She has a ‘Let’s do it’ attitude.”
She is credited with pushing the museum community to address its diversity problems by hosting a national conference and conducting a survey of museums’ workforces. “It drove such an urgency,” said Laura Lott, president and chief executive of the American Alliance of Museums, who calls Cole a mentor. “It has spurred so much action because the problem was starkly embarrassing, frankly.”
Cole enjoys national recognition as a museum leader despite heading a relatively tiny institution. With a staff of 34 and an annual budget of $5 million, the National Museum of African Art reported 213,000 visitors last year, less than 1 percent of the 28 million visitors to all Smithsonian entities. Last year’s attendance was slightly more than 2014’s 203,000 and about half of the 403,000 visitors in 2009, Cole’s first year. Cole earned $251,942 last year.
The museum lags behind its Smithsonian colleagues in fundraising, too. It is responsible for raising $15 million, about $2.1 million a year, toward the Smithsonian’s $1.5 billion unified fundraising campaign. Smithsonian officials announced this week that they had eclipsed their target a year early; the African art museum is at 80 percent, with a year to go. On Friday night, the museum will add about $500,000 from its first African Art Awards Dinner. About 500 guests will be on hand to celebrate the achievements of artist Yinka Shonibare, performance artist star Ato Malinda and the Ford Foundation. The museum hopes the dinner will be an annual event.
Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, describes Cole as a “singular force for transformation” and thinks her experience outside museums contributes to her success.
“Disruption is rarely driven by those who are attached to the status quo. It is usually driven by innovators from the outside,” he said. “All great leaders take action that they might regret in the future. That experience was a learning experience for Johnnetta. There is no doubt that part of her charm is her humility and her belief that even octogenarians have lessons to learn in life.”