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Bill Cosby has been hiding in plain sight for years. But the world finally saw the comedian and national father figure for who he really is in an interview with an Associated Press arts reporter that aired in November. In recently released video of that interview, Cosby is seen pressuring the AP’s Brett Zongker to scrub a segment in which the reporter asked him about the rape accusations that have compounded and crescendoed in recent years. The scene is uncomfortable to watch. The interview was recorded inside the National Museum of African Art, where “Conversations: African and African American Artworks in Dialogue” is now on view: a show of some 60 works from Bill and Camille Cosby’s art collection, alongside works from the museum’s permanent collection. The Smithsonian show is part of a Cosby media blitz that has since fallen apart: In the last month, Netflix, NBC, and TV Land have pulled Cosby programming, while various universities and other institutions have cut their ties to the man.
NMAfA director Johnnetta Cole has always enjoyed a close relationship with the Cosbys. In 1988, while she was the director of Spelman College, she secured a gift of $40 million (in 2014 dollars) from the Cosbys, the largest ever for an historically black college or university. Today, Cosby is accused of drugging and raping at least 19 women, all of whose stories sound sickly similar. While the truth of these accusations may never come to light, standing by Cosby means taking his word over the declarations of many women from all different walks of life, none of whom has much to gain by coming forward now. It is imperative that both Cole—and the Smithsonian Institution—sever their connections with Cosby, starting by removing his name or his works from the “Conversations” exhibit (or both).
The Smithsonian should never have mounted such a flagrant collector-driven show in the first place. To let the Cosby exhibit stand through early 2016 is to double down on that mistake.