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Smithsonian To Post Sign At Exhibition Featuring Bill Cosby-Owned Art

Quilts from the Bill and Camille Cosby collection hang at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C., in this Nov. 6, 2014, photo.
Evan Vucci

The Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art in Washington will post a sign Wednesday telling visitors an exhibition that includes art owned by Bill Cosby and his wife, Camille, is "fundamentally about the artworks and the artists who created them, not Mr. Cosby," representatives for the Smithsonian Institution say.

The sign, which will be posted at 10 a.m., comes amid allegations of sexual misconduct directed against Cosby by more than two dozen women. Some of them say he drugged and raped them. Cosby has not been charged in any of the alleged assaults.

Last week it emerged that the comedian testified in 2005 he obtained the sedative Quaalude with the intent of giving the drug to women with whom he wanted to have sex, and he acknowledged giving it to at least one woman. The Los Angeles Police Department says it is conducting at least one current criminal investigation into allegations of sexual assault against Cosby.

At issue in Tuesday's decision by the Smithsonian is the National Museum of African Art's "Conversations" exhibition, which includes works of African art from the Smithsonian's permanent collection and African-American art from the collection of Camille and Bill Cosby. The artworks from the Cosbys' collection are being seen by the public for the first time.

"The exhibition brings the public's attention to African American artists whose works have long been omitted from the study and appreciation of American art," the Smithsonian said in a statement last week.

But the exhibition drew immediate criticism. The Guardian said the Smithsonian " should be ashamed" of itself because the National Museum of African Art has received $716,000 from Cosby. On Tuesday, the Smithsonian said it would post a sign with the following message:

"A Message to Our Visitors about This Exhibition

"Allegations that publicly surfaced when we opened this exhibition in November 2014, now combined with recent revelations about Bill Cosby's behavior, cast a negative light on what should be a joyful exploration of African and African American art in this gallery.

"The National Museum of African Art in no way condones Mr. Cosby's behavior. We continue to present Conversations: African and African American Artworks in Dialogue because it is fundamentally about the artworks and the artists who created them, not Mr. Cosby.

"Most of the objects are from the permanent collection of the National Museum of African Art. About one-third are on loan from Camille and Bill Cosby. Though the exhibition does recognize their role in assembling those works, the purpose of the exhibition is to examine the interplay of artistic creativity in African and African American art — something that has been part of our museum's history since our founding more than 50 years ago. The exhibition brings public attention to artists whose art has not been seen, art that tells powerful and poignant stories about African American experiences.

"We invite you, our valued visitors, to provide your comments in the Visitor Book we have placed in the hallway at the exit to this exhibition. You can also send comments to our website at conversations.africa.si.edu."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Krishnadev Calamur is NPR's deputy Washington editor. In this role, he helps oversee planning of the Washington desk's news coverage. He also edits NPR's Supreme Court coverage. Previously, Calamur was an editor and staff writer at The Atlantic. This is his second stint at NPR, having previously worked on NPR's website from 2008-15. Calamur received an M.A. in journalism from the University of Missouri.
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