Last year left the artworld on edge, with several dramatic, unresolved cliffhangers. Here’s hoping that some of the thorny issues that vexed us in 2015 achieve satisfying resolution in the year ahead. In a series of posts, I intend to analyze a few of these tangled situations and suggest how they may be best resolved.
For now, let’s consider the sensationalistic saga that’s once again in the news:
The collateral damage to the Smithsonian Institution from Bill Cosby‘s fall from grace has gone from bad to worse with Wednesday’s filing of criminal charges involving his alleged sexual assault of Andrea Constand, accompanied by the publication of graphic, conflicting descriptions of their sexual encounter (excerpted from his deposition and her lawsuit).
There could be more tabloid fodder on Wednesday, when Cosby’s wife is scheduled to give a deposition in connection with a civil suit filed by seven women who charged that he defamed them. (Camille Cosby‘s lawyers have challenged the judge’s requirement that she testify, Egan reports.)
However this legal drama plays out, the only happy resolution from the artworld’s standpoint would be tighter guidelines for private-collection shows, adopted not only by the Smithsonian but also the Association of Art Museum Directors. By a strange quirk of fate, AAMD’s president this year is Johnnetta Cole, director of the National Museum of African Art—the very institution that mounted the astonishingly misconceived exhibition—Conversations: African and African American Artworks in Dialogue (to Jan. 24) that celebrates not only the Cosbys’ collection of African American art, but also the Cosbys themselves:
In a previous post, I suggested some of the rigorous new guidelines that museums should adopt for displays of private collections. (I am not one of those who believe that such shows must never be mounted. Under the right circumstances, the public can greatly benefit from exposure to highly distinguished private holdings.)
The Smithsonian’s new secretary, David Skorton, got Cosby-ized almost as soon as arrived at his new position. He wasn’t ready for this challenge: By his own self-deprecating admission (in his Dec. 8 remarks at a National Press Club luncheon in Washington), “you can’t know less about museums than I knew when I started. And I’m still pretty close to that right now. I’ve been reading a lot of stuff about museums—books, lot a newspaper articles, Google alerts.”
Moving to the Smithsonian last July from the presidency of Cornell University, Skorton likely arrived at his decision to leave bad enough alone at the NMAA after consulting with administrators for whom traumatic memories were still fresh regarding the Wojnarowicz debacle, in which a controversial video by that artist was even more controversially removed from the National Portrait Gallery’s Hide/Seek show. Skorton should have removed all sycophantic references to the Cosbys and let the art speak for itself. That’s how the show should have been presented from the get-go, even before the tawdry revelations made a mockery of the flattery.
A high priority for Skorton should now be to arrive at more considered, appropriately nuanced policies regarding not only private-collection shows, but also exhibitions like “Hide/Seek” that confront viewers with controversial material. While he’s at it, he should prohibit all pay-to-play displays like the Cosby show (bankrolled by $716,000 of the comedian’s own money) and two Cooper Hewitt shows: its 2011 Van Cleef & Arpels extravaganza (backed by the jewelry company) and its upcoming Thom Browne Selects, to be mounted with “generous support for the site-specific installation provided by Thom Browne International.”
Our federal museums, funded by the taxpayers, should set high standards for the policies and practices of our country’s museum professionals. That said, federal institutions may not be the most appropriate venues for highly controversial displays. As I previously suggested, the likelihood of goading conservative Congressmen into withholding funds for the arts makes provocative undertakings right under their noses, in our nation’s capital, particularly risky.
There’s a thin line between self-censorship and prudence.