The Smithsonian Museum of African Art is resisting calls to take down an exhibit because of its affiliation with comedian Bill Cosby, who has been accused of sexual misconduct by dozens of women.
The “Conversations” exhibit features 109 African artworks from the museum and 62 African-American art pieces from Bill and Camille Cosby’s collection, including a number of quilts.
“Quilts tell a story of life, of memory, of family relationships.” This quote headlines the wall of memory-filled quilts that is visible immediately from the first staircase at the museum.
Jean Steele, an African-American art collector and acquaintance of the curator, explains the arrangement of the art is meant to create a conversation of sorts, between contemporary and historical African artists and African-American artists.
“I think if they get here, the art will engage them and they won’t have to worry about [the scandal] too much,” Steele said. Her visiting sister-in-law commented that despite her shock at Cosby’s scandal, she doesn’t relate the art with his personal life.
Cosby, 78, has denied allegations from numerous women who have accused the entertainer of sexual assault and rape.
The earliest alleged incidents took place in the mid-1960s, and with many alleged to have been drug-facilitated. Court documents show Cosby admitted under oath that he obtained quaaludes to give to women with whom he wanted to have sex. But he has insisted these encounters were consentual.
The scandal motivated art collector Romella Arnold to visit the museum in case the exhibit was removed. According to The Associated Press, the Smithsonian has received about 35 emails with requests to take it down. Some emails have even included threats to withdraw memberships and donations.
The museum emphasizes that it “in no way condones Mr. Cosby’s behavior,” in a sign posted before the entrance. The sign also reminds visitors the exhibit is not about the Cosbys, but about the art. Visitors are welcome to comment in a guest book.
A tourist from Dhubai, Anna Valerie, who was unfamiliar with the Cosby scandal, described the exhibit as representing Africa's “long and bitter history" and the "struggle and pain of an entire nation.”
Arnold said that exposure to African American artists like James Bearden and Elizabeth Catlett from the Cosby’s collection is necessary because of the historical context.
The exhibit has been open since November 9, 2014 and will be on display until January 24, 2016.