The Smithsonian is entirely to blame for its Bill Cosby problem

Even before the comedian was charged with sex crimes, the Institute made itself look foolish and conflicted by agreeing to show his art collection

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 07 January, 2016, 6:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 June, 2016, 12:45pm

“When we accepted the gift and loan, I was unaware of the allegations about Bill Cosby,” said Smithsonian National Museum of African Art director Johnnetta Cole last August in a statement published on the website The Root. “Had I known, I would not have moved forward with this particular exhibition.”

Cole, a close friend of the Cosby family, was discussing the museum’s exhibition “Conversations”, which pairs works from Cosby’s collection with African art from the museum’s holdings. The show opened in November 2014, and will remain open until January 24.

However, a month before the exhibition opened, a stand-up comic called Hannibal Buress revived long-simmering rumours about Cosby’s sexual behaviour in a video that went viral.

In September, after dozens of women had come forward to describe similar encounters with Cosby, Smithsonian secretary David Skorton defended keeping the exhibition open on free-speech grounds: “I believe taking down an exhibition will tarnish our reputation among museum professionals and others,” he said. “Creative activity of any kind can generate controversy. We will from time to time get beat up about some of these things.”

Cosby was arraigned in Philadelphia at the end of December and charged with aggravated indecent assault for an alleged offence from 2004.

Of course, the only serious controversy generated by the exhibition had nothing to do with its message; it was an ethical controversy about the conflict of interest that comes from showing a wealthy man’s art collection in a public museum, especially if the art has not been given or promised to the institution.

Squaring Cole’s comments with Skorton’s takes some effort. They would not have mounted it if they knew then what they know now; but once it’s up, it would be censorship to take it down.

Would it not have been censorship to cancel it before it opened, knowing what they know now? If the firestorm around Cosby had erupted when the exhibition was still in the planning stage, what would the reasoning have been for not going forward? Possibly: the Smithsonian wouldn’t want to be associated with a possible multiple rapist?

It was a mistake to mount “Conversations” in the first place, putting the Institution in the business of promoting the commercial value of Cosby’s collection, and tying them to a man who already had a seriously damaged reputation years ago, no matter what Cole claimed in August.

As the Smithsonian contemplates the dilemma yet again, it can’t be stressed strongly enough: this was a bad show from the start. It was bad on ethical grounds (because it could potentially elevate the value of an art collection owned by a close friend of the museum’s director), and it was bad on curatorial grounds.

The latter failing – the show’s lack of serious content and its limited message – undermines the free speech argument made by the secretary for the continuing promotion of Cosby, his family, and his now highly suspect defence of family values (trumpeted through the exhibition in the art, and the wall text). The show has no clearly articulated message, other than a promotional one for the Cosby brand.

The art on display is, for the most part, canonical and well known, and many of the artists are well-established and highly collectible.

Cosby has never been particularly interested in art with any kind of challenging political message; he collected art that was anodyne and decorative. You can count on the fingers of one hand the pieces in the exhibition that might conceivably rise to the level of political statement.

SEE ALSO: Bill Cosby charged: comedian is accused of drugging and sexually assaulting woman 12 years ago

Of course, art has other messages than political ones, and every exhibition, no matter how bad, has multiple “messages” in play. Censoring merely pretty art, as opposed to provocative political art, is still censorship. And the Smithsonian should be resolute in its defence of free speech and in its resistance to altering exhibitions once they are mounted.

But there are other factors to be balanced in this case, as Cole’s remarks last summer make clear. The Institution wouldn’t want to be associated with somebody like the Cosby described by more than 50 women, and now graphically detailed in the formal charges made against him.

If “Conversations” had a message that people needed to hear, and could find nowhere else, then the Smithsonian might well place its reluctance to tamper with the exhibition above its reluctance to be associated with an accused serial rapist.

But it never had that message, because it was an intellectually vacuous show from the moment Cole decided to display the collection of her close friends Bill and Camille Cosby.

The Washington Post