Johnnetta Cole, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, has made her first substantial public comment on the controversy surrounding the museum’s controversial exhibition of art from the collection of Bill and Camille Cosby. Writing on the Web site The Root, Cole defended keeping the collection on view, even as allegations of sexual abuse against Cosby have mounted and other institutions have severed ties with the comedian.
“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,” wrote Cole. So why has she kept it on view? “The answer is that this exhibition is not about the life and career of Bill Cosby. It is about the interplay of artistic creativity in remarkable works of African and African-American art and what visitors can learn from the stories this art tells.”
Cole argued that even though the exhibition includes wall texts with quotations about the work from Cosby, portraits of Cosby and his family, and art by his daughter, it isn’t about Cosby. Rather, she said, it is about the artists on view, and the interplay between work from Cosby’s collection and the museum’s trove of African art.
She also said she was unaware of the allegations, which have been circulating in the media for at least a decade, when she accepted a $716,000 gift from the Cosbys and began planning the show. “When we accepted the gift and loan, I was unaware of the allegations about Bill Cosby,” she said. “Had I known, I would not have moved forward with this particular exhibition.”
The statement by the museum director, who has been friends with the Cosbys for years, is carefully parsed. Despite saying that she is devastated by the allegations, it isn’t clear whether she believes they are true. She doesn’t indicate whether she has spoken with Cosby. As dozens of women have come forward to tell their stories, has she asked Cosby whether they are true? The statement doesn’t say.
It also suggests that closing the exhibition would punish the artists and in some way “silence” them. While it’s true that African American artists have suffered a long history of being silenced, most of the artists in the Cosby collection are represented in other museums; indeed, Cosby doesn’t seem to have been interested in collecting unknown or obscure artists. He wanted major paintings from blue-chip artists, including historical figures from the 19th century.
In fact, an exhibition that put lesser-known African American artists into dialogue with the museum’s collection would have been far more interesting than merely giving promotional exposure to the Cosby collection. Going beyond the confines of the Cosby collection would have strengthened the curatorial concept, allowing organizers to include the best work by the same artists and artists that Cosby was never interested in collecting. By confining the show to art from the Cosby collection, they not only made it about Cosby, but also violated best ethical practices in the museum world, which say museums should not be displaying private collections that have been given or promised to them.
But the show must go on. And the damage to the museum’s reputation will mount.