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Smithsonian Director Johnnetta B. Cole Defends Decision to Keep Bill Cosby Show


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.

Source: Artnet news

Johnnetta B. Cole, the director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art (NMAA) in Washington, DC, has broken her silence on the growing controversy surrounding the institution's exhibition of the art collection of disgraced comedian and alleged serial rapist Bill Cosby.

In an editorial published on the Root, Cole stressed that "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."

She went on to defend NMAA's decision to keep the "Conversations: African and American Artworks in Dialogue" exhibition on view, stating that "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."

While Coles allows that "I would not have moved forward with this particular exhibition" had she been aware of the allegations against Cosby, she maintains that the Smithsonian is keeping the show on view "because art speaks for itself, not its owners." She also does not comment on whether she believes Cosby is guilty.

This past October, a stand up bit from comedian Hannibal Buress about the Cosby rape allegations began circulating, shortly before "Conversations" opened on November 9. This was nine years after The Today Show ran an interview with lawyer Tamara Green, who claimed Cosby drugged and raped her after lunch at a restaurant in LA.

Following the viral success of the Buress video, new accusers began coming forward; the current total is 46.

Simmie Knox, Portrait of Bill and Camille Cosby (1984). Photo: David Stansbury, permission courtesy of the artist. The Collection of Camille O. and William H. Cosby Jr.

As increasingly more organizations began cutting ties with Cosby, artnet News wondered whether the Smithsonian would join those ranks, and remove the works from Cosby's collection (about one-third of the 171 pieces on display) from the then-newly-opened show.

In response, a museum representative defended the exhibition without mentioning Cosby by name, telling us that the show "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."

In the months that followed, the museum continued to stand by the show, even as the public increasingly turned on Cosby,

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