Conflicts of interest

The National Museum of African Art, Washington D.C.

The National Museum of African Art, Washington D.C.

Museums have long had a complex relationship with wealthy donors. There are plenty of benefactors in the past who have dirty, if not bloody, hands, and it’s hard for a museum to maintain some sort of moral high ground. Should an institution reject money or art because of the donor’s reputation? It’s easy to argue for both sides, but instances of such offers being rejected are few.

I won’t go over the many accusations against Bill Cosby, or the evidence now surfacing that seems to justify those accusations. Suffice it to say he is under a cloud, to understate the case, and corporations are backing away from the Cosby brand en masse. However, the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art is not, and that has caused a lot of stir. The museum is currently showing “Conversations: African and African American Artworks in Dialogue” subtitled “From the Collections of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art and Camille O. and William H. Cosby Jr.” The exhibition is co-curated by David Driskell, an expert on African art and art of the African diaspora, who is also curator of the Cosby collection. Now further information has come to light unrelated to the multiple rape charges against Bill Cosby, which suggests that, however the Smithsonian management feels about the situation, there are reasons beyond the moral for a change of plan.

Museums do not exist to further the collections or reputations of its Trustees. Good Trustees keeps to the background, supporting the museum’s mission(s); occasionally they might be allowed to stick their name on a building or gallery – for a price. Camille Cosby is a Trustee of the Smithsonian Museum of African Art, and as such should not be featuring her family’s collection in an exhibition, though loaning a work or two here and there is acceptable. The appearance of a conflict of interest – raising the profile of a collection can increase its monetary value – is always to be avoided. As it happens, the Director of the Museum of African Art, Johnetta Cole, is currently President of the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), the group that, among other things, sets ethical guidelines for the field. Both Mrs. Cosby and Ms. Cole should have red-flagged this exhibition when it was still in the planning stages.

As the “innocent until proven guilty” stance regarding Bill Cosby becomes more and more untenable, there is the aforementioned new information: the exhibition was funded by a donation of $716,000 from the Cosby’s, which covered the majority of the exhibition’s expenses. This is also a conflict of interest. As Brett Zongker of the Associated Press reported, “Museum industry guidelines call for museums to make public the source of funding when an art lender funds an exhibit. The Cosbys’ financial donation was not disclosed in press materials issued by the Smithsonian to publicize the exhibit, nor mentioned on the museum’s website… The Smithsonian said the information was available to anyone who specifically requested it.” Making information available to anyone who asks for it hardly counts as making public.

The museum, and professionals who have spoken in the museum’s favor, have taken the same tack. A couple of quotes from the AP article:

First and fundamentally, this is an art exhibit,” Richard Kurin, the Smithsonian’s undersecretary for art, history and culture told The Associated Press. “So it’s not about the life and career of Bill Cosby. It’s about the artists.”

“You’d be sort of stomping all over the curatorial integrity of what you’ve put up,” said Jack Rasmussen, director of the American University Museum. “I think if museums had to investigate the morals of every lender, that would be kind of a new and very difficult situation. Really, it’s about the art.”

Concerns about curatorial integrity are all well and good, except that the issues surrounding this show go well back into the early planning stages. The Smithsonian has not always had a good record when it comes to management interceding in an exhibition: in 2010, Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough removed David Wojnarowicz’s video “A Fire in My Belly” following a manufactured scandal created by William Donohue of the Catholic League and certain members of Congress. This decision tainted Clough’s remaining years at the Smithsonian until his retirement in 2014. Had the issues in the Cosby case been solely those of curatorial integrity, there might be a case here. But, as it involves the ethics of a museum essentially renting its galleries to a Trustee, it’s a completely different matter, and it is disingenuous of the museum to say otherwise.

If it were about the art, that would be great. But it’s not. Consider: the Cosby’s have a page devoted to them on the exhibition’s portion of the museum website. An interview with the Cosby’s is included in the exhibition catalogue – question: was the book’s costs covered by Camille Cosby’s donation? And the quotes from the Cosby’s sprinkled through the exhibition’s home page? I have already mentioned Mr. Driskell’s involvement, which could raise a few eyebrows – Driskell is also an artist who has work in the Cosby collection – but is probably okay. If he were the only curator (he worked with Adrienne L. Childs, independent scholar; and Christine Mullen Kreamern and Bryna Freyer of the museum) that would have been a big problem.

Conversations: African and African American Artworks in Dialogue is due to run through January 24, 2016. It would be easy to make up a reason to close the show early, should the museum’s management lack the courage to do it for the right reasons. “Oh, dear, the environmental system is wonky; we’ll have to close the galleries for a while to protect the art.” Or how about “We should never have mounted a show under these circumstances in the first place”?

For me, a national museum must set the highest standards. Under those standards, this show ought never to have happened. But, as of this writing, there’s no indication that the Smithsonian understands the issues. A show “about the artists,” with the Cosbys names plastered all over it, funded by the Cosby’s, and co-curated by their own adviser and curator? Leave the gymnastic logic-twisting to politicians, Ms. Cole. And while you’re at it, someone should resign or be fired – Mrs. Cosby ought to step off the Board as well.

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