Brow Beat

What Should the Smithsonian Do With Its Show of Bill Cosby’s Art Collection?

“Portrait of Bill and Camille Cosby” (1984) by Simmie Knox, from the Collection of Camille O. and William H. Cosby Jr.

Photo by David Stansbury, permission courtesy of the artist/the Smithsonian

This article was originally published on Hyperallergic.

As rape allegations against Bill Cosby have continued to emerge this week, with a fifth and sixth woman stepping forward to publicly accuse the iconic comedian, the backlash has been swift: NBC and Netflix have both dropped plans for new projects with Cosby, while TV Land announced it would stop airing reruns of The Cosby Show indefinitely. But Cosby’s collaboration with the art establishment remains alive and well, as dozens of works from Bill and wife Camille Cosby’s personal collection are currently on view at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art.

The couple’s collection was the impetus for the exhibition Conversations: African and African American Artworks in Dialogue, which places 62 African-American pieces owned by the Cosbys alongside roughly 100 African pieces from the Smithsonian institution. A press release for the show touts it as the “first public viewing” of “one of the world’s preeminent private collections of African American art.” Part of the museum’s 50th-anniversary celebration, Conversations opened on November 9 and is scheduled to remain on view for over a year, through “early 2016.”

The allegations against Cosby, it should be noted, are not new; they’ve been out in the public arena, reported on, and written about, for a decade now. There’s no question that museum staff would have known about them when the Cosby exhibition was being conceived and planned; what they didn’t and couldn’t know is how the charges—and the attention given to them—would escalate right around the time of the opening of the show.

So, what is a museum to do?

Well, for starters, they should not do what they are currently doing: ignoring the situation. As far as I can tell, the institution has not muttered a single word in regards to the allegations—which have mostly not been pursued in court, but overall appear to come from 15 women. I emailed the institution’s head of communications to ask for a comment or statement on the matter and received this nonresponse:

The museum’s mission is to inspire conversations about the beauty, power and diversity of African arts and cultures worldwide. Exhibiting Conversations: African and African American Artworks in Dialogue gives us the opportunity to showcase one of the world’s preeminent private collections of African American art, which will help further meaningful dialogue between Africa and the African diaspora. The exhibition will run through 2016.

This is not a statement regarding the allegations against Cosby; it is a refusal to even acknowledge that they exist. When I followed up to clarify that this was, indeed, intended as a response to the rape accusations, I received no reply.

But of course, the museum’s hands are tied. The institution cannot say anything, because surely they’ve received a directive not to say anything from Cosby, who himself also refuses to say anything. Whether or not the museum is angling for a gift down the line, they surely want to avoid pissing off the big-name collector and potential donor who also happens to be a high-profile alleged serial rapist.

I don’t know if the museum should cancel Conversations. Undoubtedly a lot of time and money were spent on this exhibition, and calling it off would leave the institution in a bind. Not only that, but I’m not sure a person’s horrific deeds should preclude his art collection from being shown; it’s the art and artists (and museum-going public) who would end up bearing the brunt of such a decision. If the institution could somehow distance itself from Cosby while still showing his artworks—release a genuine statement, perhaps add new context to the exhibition or organize an event about violence against women, push up the closing date—that would seem reasonable.

But that, of course, is a fantasy. The Cosby collection does not exist without Bill Cosby, and the National Museum of African Art would not have access to it without him either. It’s hard to think of a more perfect illustration of the mess our museum system has become, of the way our institutions are completely beholden to rich people. When a museum shows a private collection—an all-too-common practice these days — it is anointing not just the art but the person who had the good taste (and money) to choose it. And it’s there that the line gets drawn. Critique an institution all you want, the art world says, and we will laugh along with you and show your work; criticize the powerful people who actually grease its wheels, and we’ll cancel your exhibition.

And so, the National Museum of African Art—which, just to remind you, is part of a larger institution that’s substantially funded by the U.S. government—sits silent. It refuses to utter the word “rape,” refuses to acknowledge that the existence of these women and their allegations, and in doing so, it cleaves morality from art.*

*Correction, Nov. 24, 2014: This post originially misstated that the Smithsonian Institution was “administered by the U.S. government.” Though the Smithsonian is substantially funded by the government, it is independently administered.