Why Is the Smithsonian Still Standing Behind Bill Cosby?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Bill Cosby will be arraigned today over a 2004 charge for allegedly drugging and sexually assaulting a woman at his home near Philadelphia. This is the first criminal charge that the comedian and TV star will face, after similar accusations from nearly three dozen women.

That’s twice as many as a year ago, when Cosby’s career began to fall apart. Since then, networks stopped airing reruns of The Cosby Show, his agency dropped him, and venues around the country canceled his comedy tour appearances.

All along, though, one major cultural organization has stood by Cosby’s side: the Smithsonian Institution. Cosby’s art collection remains on display at the National Museum of African Art in an exhibition, “Conversations,” that the comedian and his wife Camille helped fund. This is a problem, as I wrote in November 2014:

In a two-sentence statement, the Smithsonian made clear that it is standing behind Cosby, without saying as much. “Conversations” will remain on view through the start of 2016. That’s the end of the conversation from the museum’s perspective. But it should be the start of one. The National Museum of African Art had no business hanging Cosby’s art collection in the first place. But now, with serious questions about Cosby’s past finally coming to light, the Smithsonian must reconsider its own role in framing the one conversation that matters most right now.

Today’s arraignment comes around a month before the show closes. It’s become a lightning rod for the Smithsonian over the last year, but despite pressure from art critics and others, the institution has never addressed what it means to carry water for a collector who’s been accused of crimes of such magnitude.

The National Museum of African Art posted a sign clarifying its support for the Cosbys in July of this year, and the newly installed Secretary of the Smithsonian, David Skorton, lent his support to the exhibit upon his arrival. But no one has explained why a show of Cosby’s collection (alongside museum pieces), presented in a way that emphasizes the Cosby’s love of family, should have been mounted in the first place. (“Memory, Family, and the Domestic Sphere,” one of the umbrella categories in the show, seems cruelly ironic, given the near-universal prevalence of Quaaludes in the accounts of Cosby’s accusers.)

Cosby’s last friend standing may be Johnnetta Cole, the director of the National Museum of African Art. Cole was the Spelman College president who landed the $20 million gift from the Cosbys in 1988: at the time, the largest gift ever given to a black university. Spelman has since cut ties with Cosby, terminating a professorship endowed in his name—a more serious gesture than those of the many universities that have canceled Cosby’s honorary degrees. Writing for The Root in August, Cole defended the decision to keep the show up on the grounds that it’s the art, not the context, that matters.

But context counts, too, and in an exhibition paid for by the Cosbys (to the tune of $716,000), in which Cosby’s name appears on the walls dozens of times, there’s nowhere to hide. The Smithsonian should acknowledge its role in buttressing Cosby. And it shouldn’t wait until until January 24 to take down the show.