Why I Kept Open an Exhibit Featuring Art Owned by Bill Cosby

Your Take: Although personally devastated by the collapse of the comedian’s public persona, the director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art says that even in times of controversy, art must be allowed to speak for itself.

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A photograph of The Thankful Poor, an 1894 oil painting by artist Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937) that is part of an art collection owned by Bill and Camille Cosby

Frank Stewart

I first met Bill and Camille Cosby in the 1970s when I was a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. My professional and personal relationship with them deepened when, at my inauguration as the president of Spelman College, the Cosbys donated $20 million to that historically black college for women, a gift that helped many young women receive a quality education and go on to realize their dreams. My relationship with the Cosbys continued during my service as president of Bennett College for Women, and since 2011, Camille Cosby has been a member of the advisory board of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, where I am the director.

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. I must also say that in no way will I ever condone anyone committing sexual violence against women and girls.

So, then, why do I continue to take the position that the museum’s “Conversations” exhibition, containing works of art owned by Bill and Camille Cosby, must remain open? 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.

More than 150,000 people have visited “Conversations” since it opened last November, and we expect thousands more to see the exhibition in the coming months. It is my responsibility as the museum’s director to defend the rights of the artists in “Conversations” to have their works seen. It is also my responsibility to defend the rights of the public to see these works of art, which have the power to inspire through the compelling stories they tell of the struggles and the triumphs of African-American people.

There are 171 artworks in the exhibition. Two-thirds are from our museum’s permanent collection, and about one-third are from the collection owned by Camille and Bill Cosby. Only five items—four quilts and a painting by one of the Cosbys’ daughters—relate to the Cosby family.

Throughout the exhibition, there are words from the curators, and in a few places the texts include words from the Cosbys, along with one image of them, that explain why their collection was assembled. Each text is offered to help visitors engage with the rich dialogue between the African and African-American artworks.

When Camille Cosby offered to lend works from the collection she jointly owns with her husband and to make a donation of $716,000 to assist with the cost of this exhibition, we reviewed the proposal in accordance with established policies in our museum, the Smithsonian and the art-museum field. We never tried to hide the gift or loan, and when asked by the media how the exhibition was paid for, we provided that information. In retrospect, we clearly could have and should have made that information more explicit at the outset.

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.

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.

“Conversations” brings to our visitors extraordinary works of African-American art that, with the exception of one painting, have never been seen by the public. To close this exhibition would punish these artists and rob our visitors of an opportunity to be instructed and inspired by the works of Edward Mitchell Bannister, Robert S. Duncanson, Elizabeth Catlett, Lois Mailou Jones, Augusta Savage, Henry O. Tanner, Charles White and so many more.

Museums need to do more exhibitions like “Conversations,” particularly at this time in our history when stories told through art by African and African-American artists can contribute to our understanding not only of why and how race and other differences continue to divide us, but also of how we might move closer to the day when around the world, there is widespread respect for our common humanity.

Bill Cosby’s legacy will be decided by the judicial system and in the court of public opinion. Our legacy as a museum rests in how we continue to recognize the creativity of artists who encourage our visitors to think about Africa, the African Diaspora, the world—and, indeed, themselves.

The Root aims to foster and advance conversations about issues relevant to the black Diaspora by presenting a variety of opinions from all perspectives, whether or not those opinions are shared by our editorial staff.

Johnnetta B. Cole, Ph.D., was appointed director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in 2009. She is president emerita of Spelman College and Bennett College for Women and has been awarded 68 honorary degrees. In 2015 BET awarded her its BET Honors award for education.