Bill Cosby's art collection to remain on view at Smithsonian -- thanks to his undisclosed $716,000 gift

Museum officials failed to publicize a massive donation the Cosby family made amid rape allegations last year

By Jenny Kutner

Published July 13, 2015 5:34PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Jeff Christensen)
(Reuters/Jeff Christensen)

Even as Bill Cosby's legacy continues to deteriorate amid rape allegations, the Smithsonian announced on Monday that it will keep on display a controversial exhibit comprised substantially of the comedian's private art collection -- which, it turns out, was funded almost entirely by Cosby himself, via a massive, undisclosed donation last year.

Institution officials told the Associated Press this week that the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art's 50th anniversary exhibition received a nearly $1 million gift from Cosby and his wife, Camille, whose artworks make up roughly a third of the show. Via the Associated Press:

Most of the Cosby collection had never before been seen by the public. It includes paintings by one-time slaves, pieces commissioned for the Cosbys, a piece by Cosby's daughter and quilts made in tribute to Cosby and his slain son, Ennis. The exhibit also includes images of Cosby and quotations from him. [...]

Now the Smithsonian has revealed to The Associated Press that the Cosbys also funded the exhibition with a $716,000 gift, which virtually covers the entire cost. 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 exhibit opened in November. The Smithsonian said the information was available to anyone who specifically requested it.

Noah Kupferman, an art market expert at Shapiro Auctions who has taught about the economics of fine art, said such financial arrangements are not unprecedented, but museums must be transparent about them.

"It just raises a little eyebrow that a trustee of a museum is lending (her) own collection, funding part of the exhibition and the exhibition is highlighting works ... by less well-known artists whose work is considered by some to be undervalued," he said. "Repositioning these artists' works as suddenly important could have significant positive effect on their economic value."

And while previous allies continue to distance themselves from Cosby, the Smithsonian appears to be standing stoically by its decision not to: According to the AP, museum director Johnetta Cole has declined to comment on the exhibition. Instead of focusing on the sexual assault allegations, museum officials have tried to turn press attention to the artists involved in the exhibit.

"We certainly don't condone his behavior," Richard Kurin, the Smithsonian's undersecretary for art, history and culture, said. "We're just as deeply disturbed and disappointed as I think everybody else. But it's not about Mr. Cosby. This is an art exhibit."

Jenny Kutner

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African Art Art Bill Cosby Rape Sexual Assaut Smithsonian