Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole on Why She Kept Open an Exhibit Featuring Art Owned by Bill Cosby

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
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.

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Source: The Root | JOHNNETTA B. COLE, PH.D.

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