Smithsonian official: I wouldn't have opened Cosby exhibit

AP News
Posted: Aug 06, 2015 10:35 AM
Smithsonian official: I wouldn't have opened Cosby exhibit

WASHINGTON (AP) — The director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art says that if she had been aware of sexual assault allegations against Bill Cosby, she wouldn't have moved forward with an exhibit featuring artworks owned by the comedian and his wife.

In a first-person piece in "The Root" online magazine Wednesday, Johnnetta B. Cole said that she's "devastated" by allegations but that the exhibit should stay open because it's about the "interplay of artistic creativity," not Cosby's life and career.

The museum has stood by the exhibit that opened in November as the allegations got more attention and after last month's release of a 2005 deposition in which Cosby acknowledged getting sedatives to give to women before sex.

Cole says the museum didn't hide the fact that the Cosbys funded the exhibition with a $716,000 gift but should have made that more clear.

"When we accepted the gift and loan, I was unaware of the allegations about Bill Cosby. Had I known, I would not have moved forward with this particular exhibition," she wrote. "Today, although we are painfully aware of the controversy that surrounds Bill Cosby, 'Conversations' remains open because art speaks for itself, not its owners. And the African-American art in this exhibition has so much to say that has long been silenced."

Most of the Cosby collection had never before been seen by the public. It includes paintings by one-time slaves, pieces commissioned for the Cosbys, a piece by Cosby's daughter and quilts made in tribute to Cosby and his slain son, Ennis. The exhibit also includes images of Cosby and quotations from him. The museum announced last month that it would post a sign telling visitors that the exhibit is about the artists, not a tribute to the comedian.

The exhibit has also raised concerns about conflicts of interest and transparency. Camille Cosby, who sits on the museum's board, initiated the loan. Showcasing a private collection in a prominent museum is frowned upon by some since it can enhance artworks' market value. Cole said the museum reviewed Camille Cosby's proposal "in accordance with established policies in our museum, the Smithsonian and the art-museum field."

The Smithsonian recently revealed to The Associated Press that the Cosbys funded the exhibition with the $716,000 gift. Museum industry guidelines call for museums to make public the source of funding when an art lender funds an exhibit.