Richard Kurin, the Smithsonian’s undersecretary for history, art and culture, spoke with The Washington Post on Tuesday about the ongoing controversy over the allegations against Bill Cosby, and the display of art owned by Cosby and his wife, Camille, at the Smithsonian Museum of African Art. Kurin stressed the Smithsonian’s commitment not to remove exhibitions once they have been installed, citing the controversy in 2011 over the censorship of a National Portrait Gallery exhibition called “Hide/Seek,” that explored gay and lesbian themes in portraiture. He argued that if the exhibition isn’t about a donor, and uses only material from a donor’s collection, then it shouldn’t be removed simply because of revelations about the donor’s behavior. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation.
POST: Is there any crime a donor or lender could commit that would make you change your thinking?
KURIN: That’s a very tough question. . . . If you focus on the lender and the donor — and if this was an exhibit about Bill Cosby’s life and career — it would be a different story. It is about these artists [having] this visual conversation, so my question is: What is the harm in taking down a collection that hasn’t been publicly seen? The artists and the knowledge [about] these artists suffers. . . . If it was about [just] Cosby, it would be a different thing.
POST: Would there be any financial or legal hit to the Smithsonian if it removed the exhibition?
KURIN: As far as a financial hit, I think that is inconsequential. You remember “Hide/Seek” and the controversy over taking down one item in the exhibit. After that we got comments from you and many others that [we shouldn’t change exhibitions once they are up]. We haven’t taken any other exhibit down in at least my living memory. It would be really extraordinary.
[Kurin volunteered that the situation with the Cosby collection is difficult because it isn’t just Bill Cosby’s art, but also the collection of his wife, Camille.]
KURIN: It is a complex relationship, a complex situation. His wife is represented, so it is her collection, too. She was a major part of the idea of doing this. When it started out several years ago, it was done in the best intentions to highlight the museum. We have to be a little careful about painting [with too broad a] brush other members of the family.
POST: Bill Cosby is, in fact, very present throughout the exhibition, in wall panels, in art by his daughter, in his images of the family.
KURIN: In the conception of the exhibit, we had to deal with the background, where did it come from, how did it come to be? This had been assembled originally to give attention to African American artists who are not getting their due. . . . We have done other exhibits with collectors, [and we] try to describe how their collections came to be as well.
POST: Is the museum’s reluctance to remove the exhibition related to the close relationship between African American Art museum director Johnnetta Cole and the Cosbys, and why has she been so quiet in the debate about this?
KURIN: She does have a history close to the Cosbys, and a history heading two women’s colleges. [Kurin also mentioned that Cole is a champion of women and women’s issues.] I am trying to lay out where the Smithsonian is at. . . . Obviously Johnnetta is in a difficult place with this.
POST: Tell me about the financial relationship between the Cosbys and the Smithsonian.
KURIN: Camille Cosby continues to be a member of the board [of advisers of the MAA]. [Like] other members of the board, she contributes about $10,000 a year.
POST: What are the details of the past and present financial relationship between the Cosbys and the Smithsonian, and what expectations of future gifts, if any, are there? [Kurin said he didn’t have that information at the time, but a Smithsonian spokeswoman sent the following e-mail:]
Camille Cosby joined the board on May 1, 2010.
Camille Cosby has contributed the annual suggested amount ($10,000) as a board member for fiscal years 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014; total is $40,000.
In addition, the Cosbys bought two tables at the November 2014 fundraising gala, $25,000 each for a total contribution of $50,000.
The only other contributions to the Smithsonian from the Cosbys:
From Bill Cosby:
1990, $5,000 for Smithsonian folklife center
1992, $5,000 same
1995, $10,000 same
So a total of $20,000 for our folklife center (which produces the annual folklife festival on the Mall).
There are no pending donations from the Cosbys.
Finally, I asked if Camille Cosby has said anything to MAA board about the allegations, or the controversy, and if the board has met since the details of Cosby’s 2005 deposition became public. Kurin said that he didn’t believe Camille had said anything to board and that the board hasn’t met since the deposition details came out.