Should the Smithsonian Address the Bill Cosby Rape Allegations?

As media outlets distance themselves, the museum remains silent.

Museum director Johnetta Cole, Bill Cosby, and his wife, Camille, at the November 2014 opening of "Conversations: African and American Works in Dialogue" at the National Museum of African Art in Washington, DC.

Earlier this month, the National Museum of African Art debuted “Conversations: African and American Artworks in Dialogue,” which joins more than 62 works from the collection of Bill Cosby and his wife, Camille, with an important group of 100 artworks from the National Museum of African Art. But with the recent resurfacing of rape allegations against Cosby, spurred by the video that went viral in late October, which captured comedian Hannibal Buress calling Cosby a rapist on stage at a stand-up comedy show in Philadelphia, the controversy around the actor has only worsened. How should the Smithsonian respond to the renewed allegations against Cosby?

News broke yesterday (November 19) that NBC has shelved a planned project with Cosby. Netflix has postponed a stand-up comedy special planned for November 28 in celebration of his 77th birthday and appearances on the Queen Latifah and David Letterman shows were yanked. But the Smithsonian is in a uniquely difficult position, particularly since Cosby is a renowned and obviously wealthy and powerful art collector. The show has undoubtedly been years in the making and is planned to run through early 2016.

Cosby and his wife lent the show 62 paintings, sculptures, mixed-media and textile works by renowned African-American artists including Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, Beauford Delaney, Jacob Lawrence, Faith Ringgold, Henry Ossawa Tanner, and Alma Thomas. With the exception of one work, the Cosby collection has never been loaned or seen publicly before.

Taking down the Cosby collection works would leave a gaping hole in the exhibition. Add to that, the fact that despite all the extremely disturbing accusations, authorities have never brought a single charge against him. Cosby settled a 2006 lawsuit with one woman, Andrea Constand, on undisclosed terms.

While media outlets are distancing themselves from Cosby, the museum has photos of him prominently displayed on its site from the gala he attended less than two weeks ago celebrating the 50th anniversary of the National Museum of African Art and the opening of “Conversations.” Photos posted on the website from the November 7 party show him beaming and sharply-dressed as he celebrates with friends.

But in the short time since then, his reputation has plummeted to what seems like unrecoverable depths as decades of accusations are suddenly piling up. Since Buress’s video went viral, several more women, including outspoken former supermodel Janice Dickinson, have come forward with similar charges.

And Cosby’s response, or lack thereof, is not helping matters. In a November 15 radio interview conducted at the Smithsonian that took the term “awkward silence” to an entirely new level, NPR reporter Scott Simon talked with Bill and Camille Cosby in detail about the artworks they loaned to the show. At the end of the four-minute segment, viewers were treated to roughly 30 seconds of dead air when Simon asked Cosby to comment on the allegations as Cosby shook his head no and wagged his finger at Simon (who later recapped the episode, including responding to questions on Twitter). In the Washington Post, Justin Moyer called it “perhaps the most significant dead air in the history of National Public Radio: Bill Cosby’s refusal to answer ‘Weekend Edition Saturday’ host Scott Simon’s question about rape allegations.”

In response to questions, Simon tweeted: “Mr. Cosby’s ppl approached us for interview on occasion of lending art to Smithsonian. & we talked about it,” and, “But-once charges publicized, we could not duck asking. We even felt he might welcome the chance to say, ‘It’s not true.'”

In an interview with CNN, Simon said of Cosby and his PR team: “Maybe they thought we couldn’t use silence on the radio.”

But it’s impossible to imagine that the intensity of the current controversy won’t weigh on the minds of those viewing the show and affect perception or visitor numbers. We asked the Smithsonian if they have fielded any criticism or reaction to the show based on the charges being leveled at Cosby. A representative for the Smithsonian completely sidestepped our questions with this response, which doesn’t even mention Cosby by name:

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.

We also reached out to David Driskell, the co-curator of the show who is also a longtime friend and advisor to Cosby, as well as to Cosby’s attorney Marty Singer for comment about whether the accusations have impacted the museum show. Neither responded.

On his website, Cosby included a post from Smithsonian curator Dr. Christine Kreamer about leading a tour of the collection, to about 60 people on the show’s opening day: “This is an exhibition that celebrates the enormous achievements of artists – African and African American – who are often overlooked in the history of art. This is an exhibition that brings people together and engages audiences in connecting with their own histories and identities. This is an exhibition that wakes people up to the power of human creativity, something that we so clearly value here at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art.”

But in failing to address the allegations, is the Smithsonian doing the artists in the show more harm than good?

Cosby’s twitter feed was fairly active up until about a week ago. On November 10, Cosby tweeted: “My hope is that the names and accomplishments of these artists are not lost to history.”



That was the last tweet, before one a week later, on November 17, in which Cosby directed readers to a joint statement on his website from his attorney and the attorney for Andrea Constand saying that neither he nor Ms. Constand intended to comment further on the matter.


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