Even as Bill Cosby‘s career and character go down in flames, two D.C. institutions still have his back.
One is Ben’s Chili Bowl, the historic U Street NW eatery, where Cosby eats for free and appears in a mural on the side of the building. The other is the National Museum of African Art, whose director, Johnnetta Cole, has enjoyed a close relationship with Bill and Camille Cosby going back decades.
This week, questions that have dogged Cosby and his supporters for years resurfaced again, after a federal judge unsealed court documents from a 2005 civil suit against the comedian, per an Associated Press request. Among other damning revelations, the documents make it plain that Cosby acquired Quaaludes in order to drug and rape women.
While Ben’s Chili Bowl may have finally blinked—Cosby’s visage doesn’t appear anywhere in the H Street NE location opening on Wednesday—the Smithsonian Institution has doubled down on its support for him. (Works from Cosby’s art collection make up half of “Conversations: African and African American Artworks in Dialogue,” which runs through the start of 2016.)
Late on Tuesday afternoon, after repeated inquiries, the National Museum of African Art issued the following statement:
The National Museum of African Art is aware of the recent revelations about Bill Cosby’s behavior. The museum in no way condones this behavior. Our current “Conversations” exhibition, which includes works of African art from our permanent collection and African American art from the collection of Camille and Bill Cosby, is fundamentally about the artworks and the artists who created them, not the owners of the collection.
The artworks from the Cosbys’ collection are being seen by the public for the first time. The exhibition brings the public’s attention to African American artists whose works have long been omitted from the study and appreciation of American art.
This answer isn’t fundamentally different from the two-sentence statement of support that the museum tendered back in November. At that time, the Smithsonian was putting out a different fire: Cosby had pressed Brett Zongker, an Associated Press arts reporter, to scrub a question he’d asked Cosby about the rape accusations. That interview was recorded at the museum, on the occasion of the opening of “Conversations.”
Now, seven months later, documents have surfaced in which Cosby has admitted privately to purchasing powerful prescription drugs in order to incapacitate and sexually assault his victims. The show of Cosby’s art is still hanging.
Cole, the director of the National Museum of African Art since 2009, has a serious problem on her hands. Back in 1988, as the director of Spelman College, she secured a gift of $40 million (in today’s dollars) from the family. That was the largest gift ever for an historically black college or university.
But today, her relationship with the Cosbys appears to have compromised her position as a director of a museum devoted to African art, in light of these latest revelations. It was a dubious decision to mount a tenous, collector-driven show in the first place. Whatever value the Cosbys’ patronage once meant to the museum, though, is now moot; and continued support for Cosby only pulls the institution into a sordid news story.
The larger Smithsonian Institution has been content to let the National Museum of African Art answer questions (or not) about Cole’s support for the Cosbys. Yet the public deserves a clear answer from the Smithsonian, if not action. Richard Kurin, the institution’s Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture, must answer how the Smithsonian can continue to lend its imprimatur to an admitted serial rapist.
As to the museum’s rationale: There is no dissolving Cosby from “Conversations.” His patronage and celebrity can’t be separated from the show, which is clear to any visitor who sees it. Cosby’s fame is now notoriety. And it hangs on the museum like the tainted comedian’s paintings hang on the wall.