Visual Arts

Why African-American Art Could Be Another Victim of Bill Cosby

By now everyone has heard that Bill Cosby -- the beloved Dr. Huxtable from the 1980s hit sitcom "The Cosby Show," and before that, tennis coach Alexander Scott on "I Spy," from the '60s -- has been publicly accused by at least ten women, including Lou Ferrigno's wife, of sexually abusing them, or of having attempted to sexually abuse them.

Although I'm an art writer rather a crime or celebrity reporter, the story resonated with me nonetheless. That's because it occurred to me that there is another victim, one that has been mostly lost in the media shuffle: African-American art.

See also: Barbara Bowman's Story of Alleged Rape by Bill Cosby Begins in Denver

You see, on November 9, just as the scandal began to rage, the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art was unveiling Conversations: African and African American Artworks in Dialogue, a show that was meant to celebrate the institution's fiftieth anniversary and which is filled with art loaned by Bill and Camille Cosby, who are longtime collectors of African-American art and art from the African Diaspora.

The Smithsonian show includes more than sixty works from the Camille O. and William H. Cosby Jr. collection, as it is formally called, and it has put the couple's pieces into the context of the museum's collection of African art.

When I first heard about the show, about a year ago, I felt that that the Cosbys' loan represented a tangible first step on a path that could ultimately lead to the Smithsonian's winding up with the entire 300-plus works that the couple had amassed over the last forty years. And I thought that was great. Now, I think it's much less likely that the collection will ever be acquired by the Smithsonian, for any number of reasons.

TV Land can pull Cosby reruns, and NBC can cancel a development deal, but the Smithsonian can't simply take down an exhibit that took years to put together and that was the product of serious research and scholarly attention by a team of distinguished curators, including David C. Driskell, Adrienne L. Childs, Christine Mullen Kreamer and Bryna Freyer.

The Cosby collection includes works by important African-American artists such as Augusta Savage, Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden, Faith Ringgold and Robert Colescott, and if it's not the most important collection of African-American art around, it's definitely one of them.

It's heartbreaking to think of all the effort spent by the show's organizers, as well as the artists -- or at least their memories -- being tainted by the bad behavior of one individual.

But it's undeniable that the whole nasty business related to Bill Cosby's alleged misdeeds casts a shadow over the exhibit, robbing it of its potential to be a game-changer for public perceptions of African-American art.