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Tawdry Cosby (Continued): Smithsonian Secretary Skorton Supports the Controversial Show’s Run

The Smithsonian’s new head, David Skorton, last week endorsed the continuation of the Cosby Show at the National Museum of African Art, notwithstanding the flood of unfunny allegations regarding comedian Bill Cosby‘s personal character.

National Museum of African Art

National Museum of African Art

The day before the latest sordid story appeared in the NY Times, Linda St. Thomas, the Smithsonian’s chief spokesperson, responded to my query as to whether the institution might consider changes to the exhibition (beyond the recently added visitor-advisory message that disclaims any implicit Smithsonian endorsement of Cosby’s conduct).

St. Thomas wrote:

Dr. Skorton mentioned the “Conversations” exhibition in an all-Smithsonian staff meeting Thursday and said he agrees with and supports the museum director and Under Secretary Richard Kurin’s decision to keep the exhibition open.

We are not making changes to the exhibition itself.

I can’t speak to exhibition guidelines in the future, but our news releases will include the fact that the lender is also funding the exhibition. As you know, we answered that question when asked, but it will now be added to the initial release [emphases added].

As I suggested in my previous post, that’s not enough. Before tackling the problem of “guidelines in the future,” the Smithsonian needs to take immediate steps to expunge any text extolling the Cosbys (as distinguished from their artworks) in the current show and it should banish from display the idealized portrait of the philanderer and his wife. In light of the flood of soap opera-ish developments, the show’s flattery of the lender bombs like a bad sitcom joke.

The need for exhibition revision has become more urgent with the latest recital by the Times (linked in the second paragraph, above) of Cosby’s own detailed admissions in a lawsuit deposition obtained by the newspaper. This bombshell has blasted away any doubts regarding the tawdry nature of Cosby’s affairs and throws into sharp relief the disconnect between his off-camera antics and his sanctimonious public posture as an exemplar of moral probity and family values.

Of more long-term importance than rejiggering the Smithsonian’s current exhibition is the imperative to redefine guidelines for future shows. I am not one who believes that museums should never mount single-collector shows. But it’s essential that such shows be motivated by the curator-driven desire to share with the public choice examples from a truly superlative collection. If an exhibition makes that cut, it should be funded without any financial support from the lender. (The Cosbys kicked in $716,000 for their show.)

Why is independent funding important?

Museums’ financial pressures make single-collector shows dangerously tempting—all the more so if the lender coughs up some cash. A show of curator-selected works from multiple sources is more complicated and more expensive to mount, but in most instances it is also likely to be more enlightening. Some wealthy collectors are all too willing to subsidize a museum showcase for their uneven acquisitions, knowing full well that their own prestige, not to mention the value of their holdings, may be enhanced by museum validation.

Given the choice between a show that involves extensive fundraising and a lesser one that comes with ready cash from collector/lenders, a financially challenged museum faces a tough decision, unless unambiguous professional guidelines are firmly in place.

A corollary to the independent-funding axiom is that museums should curtail the growing practice of accepting financial support for artists’ shows from the deep-pocketed dealers who represent them (as I have previously discussed). This market-driven support is another instance of how “museums are being relentlessly commercialized,” in the words of Christopher Knight‘s recent hard-hitting LA Times article.

Single-collector shows are particularly rife with conflict-of-interest potential when the lender is a museum board member, unless the works have been promised to the museum. Even if the impetus for the show didn’t originate with the board member/collector, a show focused on the holdings of a museum insider doesn’t pass the smell test. (Camille Cosby, Bill’s wife, is on the National Museum of African Art’s advisory board.)

Unless a show celebrates the gift of a major collection, the collector (as distinguished from his or her holdings) should not be lionized by the museum. An institution should thank owners for their generosity in lending their art, display the works to best advantage (backed by curator-driven scholarship and interpretation) and leave it at that.

If the Cosby debacle impels a push for clearer, stronger professional guidelines—not only at the Smithsonian, but throughout the museum world—this sad saga could yet have an upbeat ending.

an ArtsJournal blog